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The City of Portland, Oregon

Fire & Rescue

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Phone: 503-823-3700

Fax: 503-823-3710

55 SW Ash Street, Portland, OR 97204

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Fire Fighter Safety Blog - Risk vs. Benefit


Keeping fire fighters safe while enabling them to still do a dangerous job is sometimes a daunting task.  As Portland Fire & Rescue's (PF&R) Chief Safety Officer, I need to enhance fire fighter safety any way I can.  But fire fighters by nature want to do everything they can to help someone in need, and we are programmed to risk our own safety to save someone's life. 

Historically, we rely on TRAINING to allow fire fighters to do their job safely. From the first day in fire fighter training, we have always stressed that recruits need to learn to be proficient with their safety equipment and tools, and yet know the limitations of those same safeguards.  On emergency scenes there are two forces working on fire fighters: their desire to do everything they can to put out the fire, rescue the victims, and stop the emergency - and their knowledge that they must do their job safely.  If they aren't performing safely on scene, they can become part of the problem and put their teammates in jeopardy.  On the whole, fire fighters do a great job of knowing when to act and how far to go - we are taught to risk a little to save a little, risk a lot to save a lot, and risk a life to save a life.  We are taught that no empty building is worth losing a life over. 


The process we use to decide how much we can afford to risk is called 'Risk vs. Benefit', and any time we pull up to an emergency scene we use it.  We look at the scene and determine the scope of the problem.  We determine a course of action.  We follow through with the plan while monitoring its effectiveness. We use situational awareness to keep an eye on changing conditions. It's as simple as THINK - PLAN - and ACT (thanks to Chief Rose for teaching us that!). Risk vs. Benefit is a struggle between what's possible and what is feasible.  Everyone makes decisions like this on a daily basis - when you pull your car out into traffic for example.  Cars are coming from both directions, some fast and some slow, some big , and some small.  Watch out for bicyclists and pedestrians! You are gauging the probability of safely merging into the traffic flow - and from two directions at once! You have to think on your feet in order to avoid a collision.  Now throw in the possibility of the sky crashing down on your head or the road giving way under the wheels of your car and you are in the decision-making realm of the fire fighter! 


In my next Fire Fighter Safety Blog, I will discuss the role of the company officer when it comes to keeping their crews safe on an emergency scene. Until then, stay safe!

March 9, 2010


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