Industrial Fire Journal - Fire & Rescue - Hemming Group Ltd
Save or perish
Published:  16 June, 2011

What is the use of an emergency service that puts its personnel’s safety above that of the people it should be protecting,  asks Roger A Klein, Cambridge (UK). 

In a Letter to the Editor published in the March issue of Fire Risk Management, Eric Dunn1 has identified a “…culture of caution and risk avoidance…” afflicting the emergency services, quite contrary to what firefighters especially believed they were signing up to when they joined the service, and dictated by “…organizational managers [and regulators!] with little operational experience or understanding….”

Are the emergency services too risk-averse? Is the current health and safety culture no longer fit for purpose and have we lost sight of what the emergency services are there for, as a result of an excessive regulatory regime and the threat of prosecution? Has legislation actually made emergency services managers risk-averse rather than primarily improving the safety of the job that is required to be done? Do senior managers fail to fight hard enough to get the Health & Safety Executive and its local inspectors to understand and fully comprehend that the fire service is quite unlike other occupations, in that levels of risk that would be unacceptable in other jobs are part and parcel of every day operations and, in addition, there is a public expectation that the fire service should manage exposure to these risks? Has training lost sight of what it is for? In attempting to remove all risk to personnel and the environment from training scenarios, have we produced training that is no longer fit for purpose? Are we looking at an experience deficit amongst middle and higher operational management? Is the deficit in the level of technical competence a problem in the modern world?

These are uncomfortable questions, especially if the answer to any or all of them is not a categorical “no”. The underpinning philosophy behind any successful health and safety legislative framework is that of risk assessment and the sensible management of risk.

The elements of risk assessment are clearly described in the UK Health & Safety Executive’s HSG(65), first published in 1991 with a second edition appearing in 19972. First, one must identify the presence of hazards. These may be substances, situations or combinations of events with the potential to do harm. Having identified all the hazards present – and this must be a truly holistic approach otherwise the risk assessment will end up being heavily biased, perhaps quite incorrectly – the risk posed by each hazard must be estimated. What is the population at risk of exposure to each individual hazard? What are the consequences of exposure? What is the probability that the hazard will bring about actual rather than just potential harm? This is best approached by using a risk matrix in which one axis represents the consequences and the other axis the probability of the hazard causing harm.


The concept of the “value of a statistical life”3

All risk management regimes require some form of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to be undertaken. This includes assigning a nominal value to a so-called statistical life. This is not usually talked about in “polite company” as it is considered to be politically improper in a similar way to the details of major incident triage. But the emergency services have to deal with the real world at an incident. It should be stressed that the concept of the value of a statistical life (VOSL) takes no account of emotional overlay. Is the life in question that of someone you know, a family member or colleague? Is it that of a child or young mother? Assigning a value to a specific life is abhorrent to most people but for strategic planning purposes this concept of a VOSL may be essential to conserve limited resources. The actual value is determined by HM Treasury and updated on a regular basis.

Generally accepted rules within the fire service for hazarding personnel at an incident can be summarised briefly as follows4:

q            We are prepared to risk our lives a lot under strictly controlled conditions for human life that is savable;

q            We are prepared to risk our lives a little for property that is savable;

q            We are prepared to risk our lives not at all for life or property that is lost.

Whether or not personnel are committed to a life-endangering situation is a decision that lies with the incident commander. He or she will be considered the “mens rea” – or “the guilty mind” – if a prosecution results from death or serious injury. Critical under these circumstances is whether a suitable and sufficient assessment of risk was carried out, as defined under the HASAW 1974, and whether the requirement for strictly controlled conditions could be met.

Public expectation is that the emergency services will attempt to save life and rescue the injured at an incident whilst subordinating to some extent their own safety within prescribed limits. This clearly has not been the case at recent incidents such as the London bombing or the taxi driver shooting case where the personal safety of emergency services personnel trumped the immediate rescue or treatment of members of the public. The majority of the blame for this situation must be laid at the door of senior managers in the organizations involved and the development of a risk-averse system of work practices and standard operating procedures (SOPs). In a sense the senior managers may not be entirely to blame as the current legislative and regulatory environment encourages them to believe that their actions will be open to legal challenge with possible personal or institutional liability. Recent cases such as the ongoing prosecution by the HSE of three fire service managers in Warwickshire FRS for manslaughter only serve to underpin the nervousness of senior managers in taking, as they see it, avoidable risks.

Does, for example, the UK Health & Safety Executive recognise that the fire service is an intrinsically hazardous occupation unlike many others in industry? At policy level this is certainly the case as laid out in Operational Circular OC 334/5 dated 30th December 2002, as well as in Training for Hazardous Occupations: HSE Occasional Paper Series OP 8 in which the heightened level of risk is acknowledged. It is worth quoting in full §17 and §18 from OC 334/5 where the “public service imperative” is likened to the “defence imperative’’ (see below5). So what goes wrong in practice?

Probably the biggest problem is the concept that has developed over the last 15-20 years that employers should not expose employees to risk – that is, any risk. Unfortunately there is no such thing as zero risk in any walk of life. Frequently mentioned in this context, and as frequently ignored by members of the general public, is the risk associated with road travel. This far exceeds any other risk to which they will be exposed unless they work in high-risk jobs such as deep-sea fishing or mining. Attempts by managers and regulators to reduce the risk of any particular job to near zero may be counterproductive as the simplest bureaucratic solution is to change or even refuse to do the job! The whole point is that risk must be controlled or managed. Under operational conditions this should in most cases be possible but, because incidents have a dynamic of their own, situations may arise where the amount of control possible is not optimal. These are the situations which are the most dangerous – for example, it may be not be possible to estimate exactly when a storage vessel will rupture or when a vapour cloud will reach explosive concentrations, or when a building structure will actually collapse. Nonetheless risk must be controlled as far as is practicable given the job in hand. Sight must also not be lost of the public service imperative.

Notwithstanding risks to personnel, how is risk to the environment during training and operations handled? Unfortunately many training regimes have grown up avoiding so-called live training in favour of simulation in order to avoid the environmental and personal safety issues. For example, foam training with non-operational training foam, ie, a product that would not perform in anger at a real incident, on an LPG rig, fails to provide firefighters with experience of the properties and behavior of real fires and real foam. Two-stage training is a sensible solution to this problem. Stage I involves using the equipment correctly – yes, I have seen a foam inductor connected incorrectly at a training school! Whereas Stage II would involve operational foam – suppression, blanketing and flow properties as would be seen operationally – and a real fire with all the problems of unpredictability, radiant heat, changes of wind direction, as well as secondary hazards such a spalling of concrete aprons, etc.

Again, a holistic approach is necessary in order to deliver training that is fit for purpose. Justifiable training outcomes need to be balanced against potential short term impact on the environment. Senior managers have to engage environmental regulators in getting them to understand that proper training in real-life scenarios may actually protect the environment and emergency service personnel better than environmentally-neutral training scenarios. It is all a matter of a fully informed debate and a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis. In the past, middle ranking operational officers with a wealth of practical experience gained at incidents would have provided a huge corpus of corporate knowledge. Unfortunately this in many cases is no longer so. How many of today’s municipal firefighters have ever had to deal with a large storage tank fire or running pool fire? What is needed is greater engagement of senior emergency services managers and regulators in a meaningful dialogue that does not lose sight of the primary mission of the emergency services – the public service imperative – and an acknowledgement that operations and training are all about controlling risk, not avoiding risk, both to personnel and the environment.



1. Dunn, E. (2011) “Inquest into London bombings highlights culture of caution that does no favours to the fire service”, Letter to the Editor, Fire Risk Management (FPA/IFE), March 2011, p.6.

2. Health & Safety Executive HSG(65) “Successful health and safety management”.  HMSO, 2nd ed. London 1997.

3. HM Treasury “Managing Risks to the Public: appraisal guidance" June 2005. It is based on a well-established ‘value of a statistical life’ (VOSL) used by the Department for Transport, £1.25 million, based on 2002 road traffic data. This value has been used by the Home Office, HSE, Environment Agency, Food Standards Agency and other government bodies. See Annex C for the detailed breakdown of this VPF into its constituent parts. It is important to note that this is not an insurance-based value. The values in this guidance should not in any way be used for insurance or for compensation claims. For the specific road safety values, and how to up-rate them, see the Department for Transport’s Highways Economics Note 1 (HEN1), 2002 at stellent/groups/dft_rdsafety/documents/page/dft_rdsafety_026183.hcsp.

See also paragraphs 5.45 - 5.47 in the Green Book,

which discusses the up-rating of values in appraisal more generally. The calculation for up-rating any value in line with GDP is provided, along with the relevant annual data, at deflators/data_gdp_index.cfm. Research in 1997 concluded that an acceptable range was £0.75 – 1.25 million, or +/- 25% of the central value £1million. Beattie et al (2001).

4. Adapted from a lecture by Kim Robinson, CEO of the Fire Service College, Moreton-in-Marsh, delivered at the 2nd International Fire and safety Conference and Expo in Kuwait City, 28-21 March 2011.

5. §17 The HASAW Act s.2 requires that employees be properly trained. Brigades deliberately expose their workforce to conditions that would normally be regarded as unacceptably high risk in any other industry. However, HSE recognises that there is a need for realistic training, to prevent serious injury during operations (see Training for Hazardous Occupations: HSE Occasional Paper Series OP 8). The level of the risk in the training must be controlled, and proportionate to the training benefit to be gained from the activity. As the risk cannot be removed entirely, management and technical systems are required to control it to that acceptable level. This example can be extended when considering actual firefighting operations. Again, firefighters are routinely exposed to levels of risk that would be unacceptable elsewhere in society. This is, however, their function and there is a societal expectation that they will fulfil this role. §18 This situation has given rise to the concept of “the public service imperative”. When considering what is reasonably practicable, inspectors should take account of this imperative, which embodies the role and functions of the firefighters, along with the societal expectation of what they will do. Reasonable practicability will therefore include not only consideration of the costs of a particular activity and the benefits to be gained from that activity, but also the nature of the work of the fire service and what society expects from them. Parallels can be found within the activities of the MoD and the defence imperative (see OC 335/1 para 4); and the police service (see OC 334/4, para 3).