Rurally Speaking: Risk Management and the Responding Volunteer Firefighter

By Carl J. Haddon

Through the years, the number one cause of line of duty death among volunteer firefighters has been, and remains, cardiac emergencies. But do you know what continues to be the number two killer of volunteer firefighters?

One of the new buzz terms in today’s fire service is “Risk Management.” Although seen and heard predominantly in larger and metropolitan fire departments, risk management is anything but new, and most certainly has (or should have) a significant place in all fire departments. I happen to have a half a leg up on this subject because I’ve been married to a risk manager for the last 24 years.

Risk management doesn’t have to be a topic to be loathed or feared but is often misunderstood as most departments employ risk management tactics each and every day. Personal protective equipment, blood-borne pathogen exposure prevention, fire prevention, and smoke detector programs are all examples of components of a good risk management program. Departments that maintain and update personnel driving records, and perform prehire background checks, do so as part of their risk management. Let’s not forget about those departments that do random drug testing. That too, is risk management. In many areas of the country, risk management has two facets: departmental and community. Simply stated, departmental is making sure that everyone goes home and that the department doesn’t get sued. Community risk management is that which we do as fire departments in areas such as preplanning, preparedness, and prevention.

As instructors, we teach firefighters about the critical need to understand and practice situational awareness. We also teach and reteach the critical thinking skill of determining “risk vs benefit” as we evaluate and size up the fire grounds, right? That, my friends, is all managing risk.

The answer to the question about what is the number two killer of volunteer firefighters? It is motor vehicle accidents while responding to a call and also vehicular accidents involving firefighters being struck by another vehicle while at the scene of a call.

As firefighters, we “risk a lot, to save a lot” on the fire ground, but where does, or should, that mentality begin and end? Are we, or shouldn’t we be, consciously managing individual personal/professional risk as soon as the tones go off?

Please think about this for a second: when the pager, cell phone, radio, or scanner goes off for a fire department call, do you lose your risk vs benefit quotient? Do your invisible blinders appear, and all of your collective focus narrows to how fast you can get to the call or to the station, turn out, and be ready to work? Most of those firefighter vehicular fatalities happen between the time the tones drop, and arrival on scene of the call.

Half of managing the risk of responding volunteer firefighters can be addressed with good departmental policies and procedures, in addition to good training and preplanning. The other half has to be laid squarely in the hands of the individual firefighters.

Last year, we were teaching officer development and leadership classes to a group of volunteer departments (insert irony here). The large room in the firehouse was filled with eager, interested souls looking to hone their craft. About three quarters of the way through the program, tones dropped for a structure fire. Suddenly, all hell broke loose as the full room emptied, and firefighters headed for the parking lot at breakneck speed. Departing fire trucks dodged responding volunteers; responding volunteers in personal vehicles dodged each other; and it looked a lot like a NASCAR race with all 40 drivers trying to get off of pit road at the same time.

We followed at a safe distance in a chief’s car from another department. We heard the radio squawk about a gear bag coming off the back of a responding truck and scattering gear along the city street. Upon our arrival, parking was a bit of a nightmare as volunteers’ vehicles mixed with working and backup apparatus. Firefighters scrambled to get turned out in their gear from their personal vehicles, seemingly oblivious to the incoming traffic that whizzed by within inches of where they changed into their gear. Once geared up, we observed a number of them blindly run across busy streets to check in with the accountability officer for their respective assignments.

With risk management in mind, I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. The scene that I laid out above is not uncommon. Add to that scenario the caveat of the majority of responders coming from their individual homes or work locations (as opposed to most of them having been at the fire station for a class) and it is puzzling why we don’t lose more brother and sister firefighters to vehicle wrecks while responding to calls each year. Also note that this article does not address how responding firefighters might drive (or how fast they might drive) while in transit to a call or to the firehouse for a call. I will leave that subject and the subject of states that allow volunteers to run with personal lights and sirens for another time.

It doesn’t matter whether we are responding from home or work, directly to a call, or responding to the station and then to the call in the apparatus. The issue remains the same: this risk has to be managed both by good departmental training, policy and leadership, and by personal responsibility. Volunteer, career, or paid on call, we are sworn to protect life and property. When we are involved in a wreck on the way to a call, we compromise and jeopardize both life and property—namely our own. Our jobs as firefighters are dangerous and stressful enough as they are. None of us wants to be that person who becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution by being involved in a wreck while en route to a call for help. Remember, “Everyone Goes Home.”

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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