Firefighting Risk, What Does It Mean To You?

memorial day fire  09051988-2 Firefighting risk: what does it mean to you?

Quite a few firefighters are aggravated and downright disgusted about overzealous “Safety Sissies” out there softening the fire service.

I get it. When is enough, enough? It’s hard enough to do our job these days on the fireground with faster burning fuels and lightweight construction. How much more do they want to weigh us down with these overbearing safety restrictions? We’ve been doing the job for 10, 15, 20, 25 years and guess what, we’re still here!

We train regularly and learn from surviving each fire – so just leave us alone and let us do our $#@& jobs without coddling us. We know, “EVERYONE GOES HOME.”

So with that said, what is the risk to you and what is your personal acceptable level of risk?

I’m sure most of you have no intention of getting harmed or killed on the fireground, which I interpret as some level of risk aversion. What I and others are trying to figure out; and share with the fire service is how far are you willing to go to not be harmed or killed? “Let’s have this discussion so once and for all we can get the safety-nuts off our backs and let us do our job as god intended it to be done.”

So, is it wearing your PPE to prevent against thermal burns? Is it wearing SCBA to protect you from smoke inhalation? And do you wear these protective tools all the time or only in certain situations? Only wear your mask during interior suppression activities, but not on overhaul and roof ops?

How do you come to making the decisions of what is, and isn’t, acceptable risk?

1. Based on your opinion

2. Based on your experience?

3. Because one of the older salty guys told you so?

4. Because that’s the way we train?

5. None of the above.

Do the NIST, UL and similar studies impact your determination of acceptable level of risk – or do you consider them a hindrance to the art of firefighting?

When you consider acceptable level of risk, do you consider long terms effects like cancer, respiratory illnesses and heart disease? How about washing your hood, gear & helmet? Or are these acceptable levels of risk?

When, within your acceptable level of risk, you get injured or develop work related disease – does it matter how much it cost your organization for workmen’s compensation and/or paying to cover your time off? Is it an acceptable level of risk that the folks who pay for it are willing to take?

What information do you use to determine acceptable level of risk? What makes your information valid? Who has input on your level of risk: your fellow firefighters; your leadership; the community you serve; your family? Why, or why not do they deserve to have a say in your well being?

Regardless of your answers to any of the previously presented questions, the most important question is: what is the acceptable level of risk you are willing to take for your family, your firefighting family, your parents, your spouse, your children? What is the acceptable level of risk you are willing to take for them?

Before you answer that, do you really understand the impact on them if they have to deal with you as an invalid or, God forbid, if you die based on your definition of an “acceptable level of risk”? How far are you willing to go?

The core of this discussion is when you answer the question of what is acceptable risk for you, that you have taken into consideration the impact your decision making process has on all who are affected, and how. So, while you have the final say on what you will and will not do, you don’t have the final say on who and what will be impacted.

When you answer these questions, I ask you to take pause and careful consideration to how you reply. So for the sake of getting the these “Keyboard Commanders” with no sense of what it’s like on the fireground off our backs – tell us what is acceptable risk for you so we can end this harassment of real firefighters doing the job the right way.

I just hope you’re 100% sure of what “the right way” is.

Let the discussion begin.

Thanks Tiger Schmittendorf for the edit.


  1. Good food for thought, part of what fuels the discussion is what is safe for me may be risk for you. Our own situations dictate what we can and can’t do. While some things are hard and fast; SCBA in IDLH, PPE, etc. others are much more subjective based on our own experiences and situation. Thoughts on safety from “Blackhawk Down”

    1. Dave Thanks for your thoughtful response.You are right on target with my thought process. The goal of this article is to create more critical thinking.I see this article as a beginning of a template to be given to a rookie and taught critical thinking and what should be included as part of that process. In the however all actions and decisions are those of the individual. I would like to know the have a sound basis for their decisions.

  2. Tony, good questions but I believe most in emergency service are not even willing to consider the questions being asked let alone try too answer them. Answering the questions will force responders to take and accept responsibility for their actions, or in some cases lack of actions. For example, something as simple as saying a hood. We don’t want to consider the facts that if we don’t wash our hoods increase our risk for cancer. We would rather continue to live with the thought that cancer is something that others deal with but it won’t happen to me. Until the Hollywood version of a firefighter is no longer valid within the fire service I believe our resistance to safety will continue.

    1. Ed, we have to start somewhere. It’s time we require and expect every firefighter to have to use a critical analysis process that includes fact, not fiction, nor fire service urban legend & folklore. it’s time they start using a sound basis for their statements and actions.

  3. This is great dialog and great questions are asked. The cold truth is no risk is acceptable when we are trying to save or protect what we know is manifestly lost. I will burn a city down before its ok to burn a brother. I think we discuss this very frequently with the wrong mindset, the true importance is what is the benefit. Let’s go risk ourselves, knowing that science has proven that fire dynamics have changed, to save a Cracker Jack box couch or chair, worth nothing and is replaceable. This hurts me to say as I enjoy aggressive firefighting, but the reality of today’s environment is that being aggressive has different consequences, of the much more lethal kind. Reality is the old days and old ways must go, fore the safety of us and those we protect. My 2 cents anyway. No matter you view, stay safe…

  4. I think so many people get lost in trying to make black and white out of fire ground tactics. Take the “go or no go” assessment you make when you decide what mode of attack to be in. When some people read these studies and hear supporters for transitional attack, they believe that you are saying transitional attack ALL the time.

    I was trained and work in a department that is safely aggressive. There are not many fires that we do not make some sort of offensive push on(we probably have 100-200 working fires in a year). I don’t see the types of fires we see today as the hazard. I see poorly trained company officers as the hazard. I think of some these “safety Sallie’s” as I like to call them are not aggressive because of inability to recognize when its time to go. I would venture to say 85% of the fires we see today can be offensive fires as long as the officer is capable of making that call of when enough is enough. When I started, you could gauge by how hot your ears were or how hot you were inside. Today, with advances in PPE, you don’t have those indicators until its too late. Company Officers need a good understanding of the science behind the fire and unfortunately I think the officer that studies that is a dying breed.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am a proponent of good risk assessment analysis when you get on scene and not putting your guys in unnecessary danger. But I think some are being too cautious because of misunderstanding.

    I whole heartedly agree with have the same level of risk assessment across the board. Don’t tell me you are going to be safer on the fire ground and then walk around with month old insulation on your helmet.

    A few months ago our department put a SOG into place with regards to overhaul and when air packs can be removed. We purchased a specific air monitor that goes on the on duty Battalion Chief vehicle and air packs cannot be removed until an all clear is given. I will say it is a SOG that is followed to the letter and there is no room for variation with our administration.

  5. Relevant to my comment; I am an industrial fire chief in a refinery, retired large city volunteer District Chief and now an Assistant Chief in a small rural volunteer fire department. Talk about evaluating risk and adjusting your strategies and tactics! Three different worlds with the same hazard (fire). Three different levels of equipment, experience and training.

    With all of this, and different types of fires, one thing is common; a zero tolerance for firefighter casualties. In our refinery we call this “Goal Zero”. The attitude that it is possible to have zero injuries. Whether this is possible or not is irrelevant. You are assertive, focused on getting the job done and are performing continual size-up and risk assessments every step of the way mitigating to the best of your ability to reduce risk. Accept nothing less.

    What does this mean as you do your job and make decisions? Just this week, in the rural department, we pulled up on a two story house fire heavily involved on the top floor. In the large city fire department we would have laid in and went upstairs standing a good chance of making a stop. In the rural setting, having to establish tanker operations, with good men with limited experience and training on interior firefighting this was not an acceptable option.

    The example above is not being risk averse; it is being smart. The point goes back to performing a good size-up that includes assessing your risk based on all the size-up factors and being a assertive as the given conditions allow you to be.

    1. Chief Greco thank you for your excellent insight. One of my goals was to have people take assessment how they would act in different situations. With most of us making recognitions primed decisions , we need to work through the decision making matrix before an actual incident if we want a high percentage chance of being successful in stressful situations. Your post bears that out.

  6. My risk comfortability is based on all 5 of your questions. My opinion: is based on things I have read, learned, tried, tweaked etc. ; it is a never ending quest for self improvement. My opinions have changed peiodically based on new learning.
    Experience: must always be considered. Thankfully I have a decent amount of fire experience both good and bad. Experience without learning, though, is just making runs. Salty vets: always listen to what they have to say, they may actually know what they are talking about. Don’t just follow what they say, they may be wrong. Use them as A guide, not THE guide. Training: if we train for risk we should be able to better recognize and handle risk so might be able to assume more of it. When the situation arises for which you are unprepared, assume less risk–you are on a slippery slope to danger. None of the above: sometimes you have to assume risk based on your gut feeling. If something doesn’t feel right be less aggressive. If your gut tells you that based on conditions, crew member abilities, and chance to take aggressive but smart actions assume a bit more risk. Learn, practice, train, and keep a clear mind when the bell hits.
    These are my thoughts only. Good discussion Tony and all. @Yfdcap2

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