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Austerity Will Not Defeat US; Nothing Can

Issue 9 and Volume 16.

The fire service is soon going to come to grips with a new word: austerity, the responsibility to complete the mission with the absolute minimum funding possible. We have been watching closely how our brothers and sisters in the United Kingdom (UK) have managed with their austerity budgets during the past year. The UK has been struggling with declining revenues for several years and, finally, austerity has been imposed. An ill-thought-out early response to the budget cuts was to cry out, “We will tell them what we will not do anymore.” That was a bad idea. What was needed and is succeeding is focused principled leadership.

Leadership is about creating new frameworks to keep our organizations serving honorably and effectively. As we prepare for what is potentially coming to our budget processes, we must continually remind ourselves of the reasons we exist. We must remain dedicated to the mission while creating new frameworks to manage our responses. Arguably, the most dangerous institutional shortcoming for public safety organizations in response to budget reductions and austerity measures is risk-averse policies and procedures. Several recent events make it apparent that we’re starting to see some of our fire service organizations become increasingly risk averse.

The writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said, “The fire truck is the most stirring symbol of man’s humanity to his fellow man.”

Mr. Vonnegut’s comment encapsulates belief that our bravery is derived from the underlying assumption that we are willing to risk our lives to protect our fellow citizens’ lives. When a public safety organization’s leadership becomes risk averse, the organization begins to create policies, rules, and procedures that attempt to eliminate all risk on the fireground and at other emergencies. Institutional language would call it a “zero defect policy”—in other words, if there’s any possibility that someone could be injured or killed, then that activity is prohibited.

The problem with these policies is that they prevent those at the scene from making the decision whether or not to act. These risk-averse policies deny the people on the scene the opportunity to assess the situation and base their decisions on what is going on in the moment. Every emergency is unique in many ways: the behavior of the people involved; the specific qualities of the fire environment at the time; and the skills, resources, and talents the responders bring to the event.

We in the fire service have for many years been guided by National Fire Protection Association 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, which states, “…. We will risk our lives a lot … to save SAVABLE lives ….” This language implies that there is an understanding that a certain element of risk is acceptable when it comes to dealing with emergency situations where lives can be saved. In developing organizational policies and procedures, it is critical that we allow those who are on the scene to assess the risk and act according to their best judgment. Policies and procedures must be flexible enough so those on scene can be innovative and creative. If the policies and procedures take away that most precious tool, choice, then the only option for those on scene is to do nothing.

Very few professions are as skilled at or experienced with being adaptive and innovative while working on complex dynamic problems as the fire service. When formulating his naturalistic decision-making theories, Dr. Gary Klein identified the fire service among the first agencies whose members make decisions while under tremendous pressure.

Another common symptom of risk aversion is the belief that by having a tremendous amount of resources at the event somehow will make the event less risky. In risk-averse organizations, we see policies that stipulate that a mandatory number of firefighters must be on scene to do this or that task. Larger numbers do not always equate with safety. Having sufficient personnel is critical to doing things effectively and safely, but there is a point of diminishing returns.

In fact, safety is ensured by having specific tasks done to reduce or eliminate potentially dynamic fire behavior, such as vertical ventilation or combining certain tactical procedures to ensure the survivability of those involved in the event. Those tasks and tactics are not necessarily dependent on specific numbers; rather, they are dependent on specific activities. Which tasks and tactics are performed and in what sequence are determined by evaluating the situation on the scene using pattern recognition gained from prior experience or in-context training.

Well-trained firefighters who understand their tools intimately and who strive continuously to understand fire behavior in conjunction with building construction and human behavior are in the best position to make good decisions. Today’s leadership must encourage greater understanding of our capabilities and greater understanding of our limitations in structural firefighting.

A well-trained and well-equipped firefighter can innovate and improvise, when necessary, creating pathways to success that may have never been explored before while someone was writing a policy or procedure. It is having this knowledge available to oneself while engaged in the actual art of firefighting that makes professional firefighters successful.

Writing good policies and procedures that avoid being risk averse are easy for organizations with firefighters who are well-trained and well-disciplined. Organizations that have a high level of in-context training and whose members all participate in maintaining an environment of continuous improvement have a much lower probability of becoming risk averse.

The best defense organizations can have against falling prey to becoming overly risk averse is to recognize that firefighting is inherently dangerous. These organizations prepare constantly and recognize that dedicated firefighters are committed to never letting anyone get injured on the fireground. The organizations that resist becoming risk averse are those that understand the words of the Greek warrior, historian, and philosopher Thucydides more than 2,000 years ago: “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and, yet notwithstanding, go out and meet it.” Nowhere did he mention the budget.

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