Fire Department Operations: Understanding the Discipline of Risk Management
Risk Management. Perhaps two of the most overused and misunderstood words in our language. Say the words to a line firefighter, and you may get the response "Yeah, Risk Management is the guy who screws me out of my workers comp benefits after I get hurt!" No son, that is not risk management. That is a separate area of expertise called screwing people out of workers comp benefits when they have been hurt. Risk Management is showing you how to avoid getting hurt in the first place. Most of the readers of this column are government people. Please show me your fire department org chart and show me where Risk Management is. For most of my dear readers, you will quickly discover it is not on your org chart. Show me your City org chart and show me where Risk Management is there. If it is on the City org chart, does it have its own box, or does it share a box with some other unit of government? It troubles me to see boxes on org charts labeled "Risk Management/Finance" or "Risk Management/Maintenance." On the other hand, show me a successful private-sector company, and I will show you one that takes Risk Management seriously. "Well, of course," you say, "because they are in business to make money, and we in the fire service are not concerned with money." Unhuh!!! How many decisions do your chief officers and fire commissioners make that do not involve money? My guess is very few. We need to get in bed with this concept of Risk Management, as it can help improve personnel safety, maximize customer service and minimize civil liability exposure. There are so many things that can be done when individuals and organizations take this concept seriously.
Here is a simple definition of the phrase: Risk Management is the identification and evaluation of risks, and the development, selection and implementation of control measures up front to lessen the probability of a harmful consequence.
Quite a mouthful, but all Risk Management is looking for potential problems and taking action up front to prevent the problems from occurring, instead of hearing after the fact "I told you so." My first article of this series for Fire Nuggets was on seat belts. Seat belts are Risk Management. You are identifying a risk (traffic accident, low coefficient of friction seat covers, bumps in road) and you are taking an action up front to prevent being injured in a collision, an inadvertent slide across a seat, or hitting a major bump and pile driving your head into the roof of your engine. My second article for you was on Background Investigations. A comprehensive BI is a form of Risk Management. You do not want to hire people who lack the skill, desire, strength, fitness and integrity to do this job, so you take actions up front to avoid the consequences of hiring a person clearly unfit to be in your noble profession. My next article was on Performance Evaluations (a form of Risk Management), and, in fact, all of my future articles will involve this discipline. Why? Because this is the way I look at life. Long before law school, I picked up a graduate degree that focused on the principles of Risk Management; and I can tell you with a high level of confidence that Risk Management works, and it works well if taken seriously.
Speaking of Graduate School (and thanks for the student loans — fully paid back I might add), while I was there I started reading the works of a great Risk Manager of the mid 20th century, some 50 or so years ago. His name was Archand Zeller, and while not a state trooper, he was a brilliant guy. Here is a great quote from this great man, albeit paraphrased:
"The Human does not change. During the period of recorded history, there is little evidence to indicate that man has changed in any major respect. Because the man does not change, the kinds of errors he commits remain constant. The errors that he will make can be predicted from the errors he has made."
We are making the same mistakes over and over again. By using the principles of Risk Management, we can identify the mistakes we are going to make, from those we have already made. Once these are identified, we can develop, select and implement control measures today to lessen the probability of a harmful consequence. So, with all this in mind, I like to divide Risks and the Management of Risks into two separate and distinct areas:
The first area is Organizational Risk Management, or how to organize the overall risks of your complex operations in the fire service.
The second area is Operational Risk Management, or how to manage the risks of a specific incident, like a specific employee termination, performance evaluation, background investigation, swiftwater rescue, person trapped in flooded cave caper, kid falling through ice incident, or downed power line problem.
Risks that can be identified can be managed, and if we believe in the above principle of Mr. Zeller, we can study the past, identify risks that have caused problems before, and take actions today to reduce the possibility of suffering a nasty consequence.
Here is a teaser for my next article in this
column. Organizational Risk Management is best summarized by taking
a look at the past consequences suffered by the Fire Service, the
deaths, injuries, lawsuits, embarrassments, employee terminations
and criminal filings involving employees, and looking for the RCF's
— or root causational factors. If you study enough of the
consequences, you will see a pattern emerge. Most, not all, but most
of the consequences can be linked to a breakdown of one or more of
- A lack of quality people doing the involved task.
- A lack of quality policy showing people how to do this task.
- A lack of quality training on how to do the task correctly.
- A lack of quality supervision ensuring the task is done right.
- A lack of quality discipline when policies are not followed.
The analog of this is that if you get and keep good people, derive and maintain a good policy, make sure that training is taken seriously, ensure you have supervisors doing their respective jobs, and have a fair discipline process in place, you can obviate most of the nasty consequences. I have been preaching this concept for the last two decades, and some of you are getting SICK OF IT. The heart of my Organizational Risk Management program I call the "Five Pillars of Success": People, Policy, Training, Supervision and Discipline.
My belief is that: Things that go wrong in life are highly predictable, and if predictable they are preventable.
Fire Service operations are not an exception to this rule. Predictable is preventable. You preach this stuff regularly to your customers about smoke alarms, breakaway window bars, fire alarms, fire extinguishers, seat belts and the like. In my next article with you, I would like to explore some ways you can maximize your internal effectiveness through an understanding of these "Five Pillars of Success" and give you some simple hints to better assure that things get done right the first time.
In subsequent articles, I would like to continue on this theme of Risk Management and give you even some more hints to better protect your women and men, your customers, and your profession. Ultimately, I would like to convince you how valuable this discipline is and that you are the best Risk Manager your organization has.
Well, I am tired now, and it is time for my nap. Thanks for taking the time to visit. Good Luck, Good Health, Good Bye, God Bless You, and God Bless America. Gordon Graham signing off. Until next time, Be Safe.
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GORDON GRAHAM is a 39-year veteran of California law enforcement. He is currently the co-president of Lexipol LLC (www.lexipol.com) He is a practicing lawyer specializing in keeping fire departments and firefighters/officers out of legal trouble. During his tenure as a police professional, he was awarded his Teaching Credential from California State University, Long Beach. He was later graduated from University of Southern California with a master's degree in safety and systems management. Subsequent to this, he was graduated from Western State University with a juris doctorate.
Mr. Graham has centered his efforts in providing knowledge to both public and private sector organizations in the area of organizational and operational risk management, civil liability, professionalism, ethical decision-making and related topics. Over the last decade, Mr. Graham has made over 3,000 presentations to various groups including law enforcement; corrections personnel; fraud investigators; fire professionals; EMS; other first responders; legal professionals; educators; city, county and district employees; law firms; hospitals; and real estate companies, along with many other private sector organizations.