I was talking with a good friend recently who filled me in on an after-action critique he attended. The fire in question was in an occupied structure in the middle of the night. There was a decent amount of fire upon arrival but the fire was confined to the attic space above the garage and had not extended into the occupied portions of the building. Upon arrival, they received an all-clear from a bystander. A primary search was never assigned. He was appalled that everyone involved didn’t seem bothered that a search was never done rationalized by the idea they had an “all clear” from a bystander. In the fire service we both grew up in, the building was not empty until we said it was empty.
The fire service today has seemed to be favoring a risk management philosophy in which we look for reasons to NOT go into a building on fire rather than for reasons to go. We rationalize this philosophy with “science” or some kind of skewed risk vs. reward analysis thinking only of the worst possible outcomes rather than the mission of the fire service.
The unfortunate effect of this approach is known as a cognitive bias. Within the world of psychology, there are several types of cognitive biases that we face when making risk management decisions. These include:
Confirmation Bias is the tendency to favor information that confirms your belief. If you approach risk management decisions on the fire ground with the mindset of why you will NOT go into a building on fire, you will find all the reasons to not enter the building.
The next form of bias at work is known as an Anchoring Bias. With this type of bias, we again tend to favor staying out of the building on fire because we tend to favor the initial impression we form upon arrival. If our mindset is to look for reasons we shouldn’t enter the building we will find them through confirmation bias and stick to them because of anchoring bias.
A final bias is the Availability Heuristic, the tendency to place more weight on the information we obtain quickly. Using the concept of recognition primed decision making, we look at a situation and attempt to recall a similar situation from our past. This recall tells us how we should act now that we are faced with a similar situation again. If we continually do not enter buildings on fire, our Rolodex (for those that don’t know what a Rolodex is, ask your Senior Man) becomes filled with cards that tell us not to go therefore we are primed to not go.
The mission of the American Fire Service is to protect life and save property. For as long as I have been in the fire service the National Fire Academy has recognized Life Safety as the primary incident priority. These two examples highlight the idea that we must make every attempt possible to save lives and protect property. This is the expectation of the taxpaying citizens we are sworn to serve. They provide us with hundreds of thousands of dollars of training and education, hundreds of thousands of dollars in departmental equipment, and tens of thousands of dollars in personal equipment. In return, they expect that we will make every attempt to save lives and protect property. I have always held the idea that as a firefighter I am not paid for what I do but rather what I am willing and capable of doing. This means we make the push and fill our Rolodex with successes. We are obligated by our oath to make every possible effort to ensure that a victim that can be rescued is rescued. There is no denying that the determination of whether a victim can be rescued or not is made from INSIDE the building, therefore, we must go inside the building. And hey, since you’re there why not knock out a primary search while you’re there.