How Chaos Theory and The Improbability Principle Affects Firefighters
By Jason Ramsdell
We are often reminded in the fire service that accidents, minor or catastrophic, begin with a chain of events escalating without proper intervention. The initial domino falls, creating the inevitable chain of events. The failure to perform a proper pump check in the morning may result in the first-due engine at a fire not being able to pump water. Imagine what would happen hearing this on the radio. I’m sure everyone told themselves they would control the chaos and the second-in unit would pump and the officers would work out a plan, communicate, and execute. What about the firefighter showing up at a fire with only one glove? This may be his first fire in more than six months and he always expected, and maybe assumed with certainty, both of his gloves were clipped on his bunker coat. These types of examples are continual and can be examined through close call reports and, unfortunately, NIOSH line-of-duty deaths. Many accidents, injuries, and close calls can be traced back to their initial conditions. Sometimes we wish present conditions were different and, when discovering initial conditions, we may become angered over the subtle and minor decisions that could have been different. Sudden change, deviation, or sensitivity in initial conditions may create turbulence and unexpected results.
Chaos Theory is a branch of mathematics that studies initial conditions resulting in predictable and self-organizing patterns.1 Yes, Jeff Goldblum was a chaos theorist in Jurassic Park. A layman’s view of a structure fire is chaotic with different-colored helmets walking around working completely independent of each other. What may initially seem chaotic is simply a repetition of random states of disorder controlled by our abilities and policies that self-organize into a generally predictable outcome. We are good at controlling chaos although sensitivities in initial conditions may cause systems to behave chaotically and possibly unpredictable.1 Did the officer predict that the pump would be out of service at a fire? The Butterfly Effect is related to Chaos Theory and describes how a small initial change can possibly change a future event.1 Imagine leaving your house 30 seconds later than you planned and witnessing a horrific traffic accident in your rear-view mirror. Chaos theory is rich in thermodynamics, engineering, economics, biology, and even flashover dynamics.1 Chaos Theory makes use of nonlinear systems and differential equations and has produced beautiful images called fractals.1 I will spare you the mathematical jargon, equations, and pictures involved with Chaos, but we should be aware that Chaos is all around us.
Firefighter initial conditions can be defined as our baseline of knowledge, experience, health, cognition, awareness, and abilities. Our initial conditions will naturally change because of internal and external forces that create ebbs and flows deviated from our baselines. Some days we “are on” and some days we “are off.” We’re only human. Maybe you sprained your ankle at home and decided to come to work anyway. Maybe you’ve recently been promoted and have a heightened sense of ability from a newfound confidence. Applying Chaos Theory to firefighting requires us to focus on those ebbs and flows and understand why they happened and what we need to do to maintain our baseline. Regression to the mean is another way to define the ups and downs of conditions that eventually settle near the baseline.2
Are you certain that you and your crew will always come home safe and injury free? The words certain, absolute, and always relate to a 100 percent chance of happening. There may be a high probability that we come home safe, but we cannot conclusively say we will with certainty. We tend to think that low-probability events will certainly not happen to us, even firefighters. Imagine running two medical calls, exactly one hour apart, for patients who each had their right eye missing. What are the odds? It must have been a coincidence, right? Events like this happen every day, somewhere in the world. It may have just happened. David Hand is a British mathematician and developed the Improbability Principle.2 The essence of the Improbability Principle is what we may think as rare events happen every day and that we should expect them to happen.2
We are bombarded with statistics and probabilities every day–everything from the weather, the stock market, DNA results, and our annual incident breakdown. To spare you again from mathematical terminology, I think we can understand the differences between a 1 percent chance a 99 percent chance. The number of times an event happens divided by the number of events possible gives us a percentage of likelihood. If a fire department runs a fire 3 percent of the time, we can guess that 3 out of 100 calls is a fire or 30 out of 1,000 calls is a fire. While unlikely, three percent is not zero and we cannot assume with certainty we won’t run a fire on a given day. This brings us to a component of the Improbability Principle called the law of inevitability. Simply stated, anything that is possible will happen given enough opportunities.2 Buying 1,000 lottery tickets gives you a higher chance of winning a prize as opposed to only buying 100 tickets. Have you ever had that feeling coming into work that something big was going to happen? Maybe it’s been a while since a large-scale event or something abnormal. As the days go by, opportunities are being expended and that eager feeling is the law of inevitability in action. Are the initial conditions of your crew in order?
Maybe you have begun to connect the dots that Chaos Theory and the Improbability Principle crash into each other every day. A second component of the Improbability Principle is the law of the probability lever. This is a change in initial conditions that may have a large impact on probabilities.2 Remember the two patients who each had a missing right eye? What if I were to tell you that the probability of this happening is 1 out of 10,000? What if I add a caveat that your city uncharacteristically has a higher number of one-eyed residents and the probability changes to 1 out of 500? Stark differences. The initial conditions were changed for this city, which caused different probabilities. This notion can be applied to many probabilities we hear every day. A park ranger is more likely to be struck by lightning as opposed to a miner. Different initial conditions resulting in different probabilities, yet we hear the general probability of being struck by lightning as about 1 in 300,000.2 What is the new probability that an accident will happen with an injured ankle as opposed to a healthy ankle?
The simplest and mundane tasks seem to find a way to bite us in the rear, and we are left shaking our heads and asking why. We leave our guard down one time out of thousands of opportunities and it happens to us. It’s inevitable, and changes in initial conditions can wreak havoc. Sometimes the simplest things in life are the most complex and difficult to navigate long term.
Research shows that the most common cause of accidents is human error. The U.S. Fire Administration released a report in 2018 that analyzed the factors contributing to preventable firefighter deaths. Regarding apparatus driving, they pinpoint preventable incidents during periods of clear weather, which may suggest complacency and a false sense of security because of past experiences.3
With certainty, we tend to trust our veteran drivers and there is no reason to fear. By no means am I saying every veteran driver will cause a collision because of human error and that we should change policies or procedures based on years of service. Mechanical failures happen and the law of inevitability applies to all drivers on the road. The more you drive and the more cars on the road eliminate opportunities leading to inevitability. We generally don’t question our abilities to drive the apparatus or our own vehicles. The problem leading to these preventable accidents through human error tends to suggest a mental preparedness component is lacking. Our past experiences of event-free occurrences may lead to a mentality of predictable outcomes and trusting our abilities with certainty. Hopefully, we are beginning to understand that changes in initial conditions may lead to unpredictability.
Another interesting factor contributing to preventable firefighter injuries and deaths is a correlation with years in service and carelessness.3 Breaking down firefighter death and injury statistics isn’t the scope of this article, but the data suggests firefighters are more likely to suffer injury or death with more years in service.3 Have we witnessed the new firefighter who is situationally aware, wants to learn, trains hard, and double checks his gear? Hopefully, everyone. Have we also witnessed this same firefighter subtly drop his guard as the years go by? Is it physical? Mental? Maybe a combination of both?
Society and technology are contributors of change in the fire service. The fire service decades ago functioned as a generally predictable system given the initial conditions of the time. Of course, there were attractors and sensitivities that created Chaos, but we were able to adapt and learn to change our initial conditions through training and education. Today is no different. While we are still the fire service, certain systems have been updated and improved. The past few decades have given us innovative equipment and apparatus. Research has given us tactical considerations to fight the modern fire environment. Society is changing, and fire departments across the country have embraced cultural competency and leverages diversity to enhance their service delivery. All these changing variables add to our changing bodies and minds as we progress through the fire service. It’s a constant balancing act of mental and physical preparedness to maintain our initial conditions, but it should be a goal of every firefighter to continually improve their initial conditions for the betterment of the public, our departments, and our crews.
Department culture, policies, training, exercise regiments, and wellness programs all contribute to our initial conditions. Simply going through the motions without adding the mental preparation needed for our job may skew our initial conditions on any given day. The law of inevitability tells us to expect the unexpected and to have your initial conditions in order. The changing of initial conditions tells us that probabilities may change from a possible 90 percent probability of an accident-free incident to a much lower probability. We are only human, and we tend to go with better odds. Create your better odds every day.
Imagine a stock market ticker slowly increasing, declining, or maintaining over the long term. Some have described this as a ping pong ball bouncing down a flight of stairs, up a flight of stairs, or on a flat surface. We have ups and downs as the baseline increases, decreases, or remains stable. We should strive to be firefighters who increase our baselines over the long term and learn to navigate the ups and downs of our surrounding changes.
Training instills the knowledge, repetition, and muscle memory needed to be effective and efficient. We have a set baseline, but everyone is different. Humans are very complex. Each member of a crew is an integral part of a complex system. Different baselines working together may produce different results in different time intervals. Crews should continually increase their individual and team baselines to prepare for those low-probability events because they are coming.
How are your crew’s culture, training, preparation, daily routines, physical fitness, and mental fitness contributing to your initial conditions? While we may be physically ready, our minds need to be sharp and vice versa. As a fire service, we must continually be diligent to take the extra time to prepare ourselves mentally and consciously think through our everyday, mundane actions that may save lives. It’s easy to ignore the simple things we know are important. Are we getting enough sleep before shift? Are we looking at the soles of our boots before throwing them on the truck? Are we taking note of the subtle different noises our pump is making? Are we training on the low-probability events? Are we working well as a team? These types of questions are endless, but they all contribute to the improvements of our initial conditions.
For some, self-evaluation and realization of your initial conditions may be hard to swallow. It is important to accept your shortcomings and take actions in shoring them up. Write them down, talk with a family member, or talk with your crew. We are quick to lend a hand while on scene but may be hesitant to do the same in the station or off duty. Officers must be able to sense the ebbs and flows of their firefighters and intervene when needed. It also goes both ways. Firefighters should not be discouraged to ask their officer if they are doing OK and look out for their ebbs and flows. Continuous improvement of your baseline and initial conditions adds value to your crew and prepares you to tackle the inevitable and chaotic world of firefighting. Now go control the Chaos, literally.
1. Gleick, J. “Chaos: Making a New Science.” 1987. New York City, NY: Viking Books.
2. Hand, D. “The Improbability Principle.” 2014. New York City, NY: Scientific American.
3. United States Fire Administration. “Factors that contribute to preventable firefighter deaths.” 2018. Retrieved from https://www.usfa.fema.gov/current_events/042618.html
Jason Ramsdell is a lieutenant, 14-year veteran of the Oak Hill (TX) Fire Department and an Army veteran. He has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, an associate’s degree in fire protection technology and is working on his master’s degree.