Maybe Our Cheapest Tool-Often Missing Or Ignored

Robert Tutterow

The story seems to be repeated on a daily basis all across the country with headlines like “Firefighters Being Laid Off,” “Fire Station Closing,” and “New Fire Truck and Equipment Struck from Budget.” Fire department responses include, “the public will be at risk,” “people will die,” or “property will be lost.” These confrontations become political and emotional.

Rarely do we read or hear about a fire department that counters the budget cuts with hard, factual, validated data. Yet this can be done. And, if done professionally, it can be very effective. In previous columns, I have written about the crippling effects that the lack of data has on the fire service. There is another tool that can be used on the “front end” to help substantiate fire department decisions and purchases. It is one of our cheapest tools and sadly one that is missing from the “toolbox” or ignored if it is there. Yet this tool could be a fire department’s salvation when it comes to budget cuts or litigation.

Risk Assessment

Despite its importance, the tool is not sexy, hands-on, adventurous, hardware, or exciting. It is a tool that no one stands in line to use or one that firefighters use in basic firefighter training. Yet it is a tool that is critical to the success of the other tools in the toolbox. The tool is risk assessment, a part of the risk management plan. Developing and using the tool requires time, brainpower, objectivity, research, and buy-in from everyone.

Not Risk Management

It is crucial to understand the difference between risk assessment and risk management. The Journal of the American Society of Safety Engineers distinguishes between the two in the following:

“Risk management is a term that describes the efforts of an entire organization to mitigate workplace injuries, while risk assessment is the process by which specific problems and issues are resolved.”

A fire department can use a risk assessment tool in a variety of applications, such as apparatus, personal protective equipment (PPE), station location, deployment, fire prevention initiatives, and training needs.

Have a risk management plan in place before starting a risk assessment. Despite National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health, requiring one for decades, it is startling how many departments still have no written plan. One health and safety officer from a large city fire department told me he drafted a risk management plan for senior staff review and approval and never received a response. That department is living on “borrowed time.”

Three Steps

Most risk assessments involve three basic steps: prepare, conduct, and maintain. The key parts of preparation are:

1. Identifying the risks.
2. Identifying the vulnerabilities.
3. Determining the likelihood.
4. Determining the impact.
5. Determining the risk.

This process must include various interests within the department and, in certain situations, community stakeholders.

Remain Objective

It is challenging for fire departments to conduct a risk assessment objectively. For example, while attending a recent PPE workshop, I had the privilege of hearing Deputy Chief Tom Foley, with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), share a story about a major metro fire department’s PPE risk assessment. The department was sensitive that its turnout coats and trousers selection should be based on its risk assessment. One of its criteria was the color of the PPE, yet it provided absolutely no substantiation for relating the color to the hazards. Its only statement was that the color needed to match the color that had been used in the department for decades. The department had weighted its risk assessment to a desired goal rather than an objective goal. It’s reminiscent of the infamous statement about motorized fire apparatus being OK but for good dependable response, we still need the horses.

A fire department that does not remain objective while conducting its risk assessment is ripe for litigation should the process be called into question because of a firefighter injury or fatality. “The look” has always been important to the fire service, yet it could be contrary to the results of an objective risk assessment. Foley used the acronym LCES to describe this fire service cultural barrier-looking cool every second.

Finally, when a fire department develops a risk assessment, it must maintain it. Like most documents, it should be reviewed, revised, and implemented. The risk assessment tool-use it objectively.

ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).

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