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Risk Aversion is not Risk Management: A conversation

One of the coined terms that consistently pops up in the fire service is “Risk Management”. As with many terms as of late, it has seemed to turn into a sort of catch-all in many instances.

For those in the lower ranks, risk management has become a dreaded, if not hated term used by the crossed bugle types to hinder them from doing their jobs efficiently. Or so it would appear from their point of view. For the Company and Battalion level bosses, it is seen as the fine line, or tightrope, that must be treaded on carefully. It seems to have a very large grey area in the middle with very little black and white on either end. For administrative or executive staff members it is yet again a very hard subject to fully define, truly manage, or have a great deal of control over. Some entities just slap down a policy that promotes total risk aversion, taking the easy way out. This aversion strategy places our mission of saving lives and protecting property in grave danger and calls into question our reason for existence. Furthermore, there are those of us that want to put in the time and effort to figure out how to best uphold our mission while doing our best to minimize risk to ourselves as much as possible. It is in our DNA to run towards danger to help others. Yes, sometimes our personalities lead us to push the envelope a little to get the job done and that’s ok. Sometimes that envelope needs to be pushed, but it needs to be calculated and never entered without regard for consequences. As professional firefighters, we tend to live in that grey area. So, how do we manage risk without avoiding it completely?

The mission of fire departments has shifted to cover such a wide variety of responses, it has become a daily challenge to ensure that every call for service has a level of safety, reducing the chance for injury or loss for a given situation. The days of just simply repeating the ole go-to: “Risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, and risk nothing to save nothing” simply just doesn’t cut it anymore. We are professionals! We are paid and expected to show up to out of control and dangerous situations and contain it, regain control, and mitigate it, with minimal risk to ourselves, equipment, or the environment. Smart people like Mike Gagliano have developed great ideas to help us make the hard decisions. His “Go, No-Go” model is a good tool and a great place to start, but doesn’t always meet the need of the situation, nor is it (or any model) able to consider all the variables and factors of a given situation. We need to be ready and prepared for the next incident. How do we accomplish this task?

Training! We mitigate much of our risk by training and practice. Professional athletes’ practice for hours, days, and even years before a big game or event. They take proactive measures to keep their bodies ready for the strenuous work they perform with diet and exercise. Why should we think we are any different in a profession where the stakes are exponentially higher? WE SHOULDN’T, and can never let ourselves slide down the slippery slope of thinking we are totally prepared. We need to think and prepare more like soldiers for battle. The stakes are similar… lives, economies, and safety. A large portion of firefighters have served in the military and have a good understanding of the massive amount preparation and planning that goes into just a simple operation or patrol. Planning and risk assessment are imperative to their operations. They plan the route, number of personnel, supplies, armament, communications, and back up plans if and when things go sideways. Sound familiar? Do we not plan out our route when a call is dispatched? Do we not plan for how many people we will need for certain call types? Do we not need to bring enough supplies to sustain us for several hours without relief? Do we not arm ourselves with the proper weapons to fight the fires or treat the patient/s? Are communications not critical to coordinating our responses? Do we not have back up plans? YES, we do. If not, we should make the preparations now. We do the same things, but often do not treat it with near as much careful thought.

You see, even though you may think risk management is one of those jobs done by admin, you and those around you are constantly evaluating and managing the risks around us. It's not something above you or below you. You are part of ensuring the risks around you are managed. We are always managing risk; on scenes, in training, enroute to, and even back from, a call. What about our personal lives? We take financial risks in real estate, investments, and retirement (401k/457). We evaluate it when deciding which car to buy for our family’s safety and budget. We manage risk every day just getting in the car to go to the store. Which route we take, how fast we drive, or if we wear a seat belt or not. These are all risks we take without much thought, but can potentially have a significant impact on our lives.

So far we have stressed the importance of making time to identify and evaluate risk, but it is important that we not spend too much time in those phases. It is easy to spend too much time planning, meeting, or table topping ideas and not enough time testing, training, or rehearsing the plan we talk so much about. A policy or guideline is great… if it’s followed and allows for some deviation if necessary. Too many times policies are implemented without a trial, test, or periodic review. Implementing policy with no wiggle room for improvement or reevaluation is a slippery slope that can lead to unintended consequences. For many of us as Firefighter/EMTs or Paramedics, we have standing orders with the appropriate indications and contraindications for many of our field interventions. How do we not write some of the same processes into our fire and technical rescue procedures?

Our job at every level is not simply black and white. We spend much of our time in the grey zone. Again, how do we manage risk? We train. We plan. We prepare. We use past experiences, intuition, and even gut feelings sometimes, to make the best call given the situation we are presented with. We read. We share information. We network. We are into every aspect of our versatile jobs to prepare ourselves for the worst, then put forth our best effort when the call comes in. We can ill afford to simply be risk adverse. To bury our heads in the sand and pretend that nothing bad will happen. We must train hard, be smart, analyze data when available (or seek it out), and use every member of our team in their strongest discipline.

Firefighters are often thought of as the “jack of all trades”. It is an advantage to have broad knowledge over multiple skill sets, but it can also be a disadvantage at times. Having a wide range of general knowledge tends to make us well-rounded. Conversely, it can also give us a false sense of security and make us overconfident. Some may not know that there is more to that jack of all trades quote. The full quote is: “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”. Take that into account next time you use the phrase. Remember that it is meant to show that having a broad knowledge and obtaining general knowledge about many things is just as valuable if not more valuable than having specialized knowledge in just one area. However, like with many things, it can pay to have a specialist, expert, or master of a subject available to call for advise if you need one.

If you have ever been a part of, or lead any team, you have most likely found out the hard way that not everyone has equal ability. Yes, I said it. We, in fact, were not all created equal. Everyone in a department, division, or team, brings a little something to the table. A teams’ ability to harness and utilize each person’s individual knowledge, skills, and abilities has a direct correlation to their success or failure. Why not use each member of the team to better mitigate risk? As a leader, a large part of your job is managing risk. What better way to manage risk than to identify, encourage and cultivate members of your team to be the best version of themselves? Socrates said: “True knowledge is knowing what you don’t know”. This means you may know a lot about a little, or a little about a lot, but one thing is for certain: none of us knows everything about everything. Understanding that we can’t know everything is where true knowledge, growth and leadership begin.

“It seems to be a law of nature, inflexible & inexorable, that those who will not risk cannot win” – John Paul Jones

Risk management is a hard thing to fully define or put a label on. Understanding that we can never mitigate all risk can lead us to accept a certain amount of risk in order to perform our duty. Every leader must get comfortable accepting some level of risk. We all must grow to accept that some risk will always be present due to factors out of our control. What we can do about risk are a few things that make taking it more palatable. We must all make efforts to control risk that we can control. Remember, we reduce risk by training and educating ourselves. We don’t control risk but refusing to take any; this only delays the damage and leads to catastrophe later. Lastly, MAKE A DECISION. Remember that sometimes indecision can be worse than making a poor decision. Use all the tools at your disposal to help mitigate risk, but never refuse to take risk, for that is when we lose the faith of the people who count on us to come every time they call.

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