2015-03-03 High-Risk, Low Frequency EventsComment on this page

Let’s take a minute and think about risk management. I know, not something that we think about often and it’s not surprising. Risk management sounds about as enticing as a spending a day shoveling out the sumps. That said, its something that we should all consider on a call-by-call basis. It’s part of a thorough size-up and done properly it just might be the difference between going home at the end of a shift or not.

Consider the four choices below:

High-Risk, Low-FrequencyHigh-Risk, High-Frequency
Low-Risk, Low-FrequencyLow-Risk, High-Frequency

Everything we do on calls can be put into one of these four categories. This is a concept introduced by Gordon Graham, a Doctor, Lawyer and former California police officer and it is a great way of thinking about the level of risk in our jobs. Three of the four categories are not all that worrisome for us. As Graham states, what we need to be concerned with are High-Risk, Low-Frequency Events. In other words, High-Risk, Low-Frequency events are those events that are very dangerous and yet are seen very infrequently.

Graham describes particularly troublesome events as those that are High-Risk, Low-Frequency, where we have little to no time to think through the proper course of action. Most of us can think of many situations we have been in that could be categorized as High-Risk, Low Frequency and a lot of those situations required immediate decisions to prevent injury. Many of these events probably came at the beginning of your careers in the fire service, where everything is new and you have little experience to drawn from. Looking back, you might even consider yourself lucky for escaping such events unscathed and might even have vowed to learn form that experience and not let something like that happen again. The reason why these events were High-Risk, Low Frequency for you was because, as Graham says, your hard drive wasn’t full. It is important to note that while this is more common with new people on the job, High-Risk, Low-Frequency events can occur with experienced members. For example, the number of structure fires is decreasing (a good thing), however this is putting us in a position where many of us have been to very few actual structure fires. Depending on the districts you work, high-rise fires, wildland fires, and/or MVCs on major highways could all be considered High-Risk, Low-Frequency because these are low frequency for you and also pose a great risk to you and your crew.

This concept of a your brain as a hard drive leads to a process called Recognition Prime Decision Making (RPDM). Basically stated, RPDM refers to how we make decisions in stressful situations, i.e. all of our past experiences are stored in our memory and when we are faced with a decision our brain accesses that memory, recognizes a positive outcome from past experience, and suggests a course of action. This is why experience is king in our line of work. The more we see and experience, the larger our hard drive is and thus the more likely an event will fall into a category other than High-Risk, Low Frequency. That is not to say that what we do will never be high-risk, it simply means we will be better prepared for those high-risk situations. How do we become prepared? Identify which types of calls are High-Risk, Low-Frequency FOR YOU. Be critical of your experience and comfort level with tasks and types of calls. Then, train, train, train. Build that hard drive. Also, when faced with a High-Risk, Low-Frequency event, SLOW DOWN! Take the time to think through your course of action and if necessary, lean on the experience of your team. We as firefighters tend to want to get things done NOW, but we often have more time than we think. A good example is a 360 at a house fire. It takes an extra 2 minutes and provides a wealth of information. This is common practice now but it wasn’t always the case. The fire service recognized this as an opportunity to slow things down and build a better picture.

If you would like to see the youtube video of Gordon Graham better describing these concepts, check out this link:

Be safe out there!