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Risk, Possibility, and Probability

The following article was first published in 2006 and has been revised and updated as I discuss risk in the next few columns. It was April, 2006 when a mid-west fire department responded to a controlled burn that had gotten out of control and spread to adjacent brush. During the operations at the fire one of the apparatus became stuck in soft ground. In order to free the mired apparatus, a tractor was employed to do the pulling and a driver needed to steer the fire apparatus. During the towing operation, according to reports, the clevis connection failed and the tow rope/cable whipped back through the windshield striking the firefighter steering the apparatus in the forehead. He was flown to the nearest trauma center where he underwent brain surgery. The firefighter passed away as a result of his injuries a few days later.

Over the years the word risk has become a common word in the field of firefighter safety. We risk a lot to save a lot, and we risk little to save little. Of course the risk that we are talking about is one’s life. How much jeopardy (risk) shall we place upon our life in order to accomplish a specific task or function? When we speak of risk, isn’t there risk in our everyday lives as well? The potential to fall in the shower, get hit by a car, be involved in a motor vehicle accident, having something fall on us, or just simply trip and fall injuring ourselves. What about the folks in our great country who live in areas devastated by a multitude of other possibilities like tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Do we lock ourselves at home only to have the ceiling fall on us? Do we pack our bags and move? The answer to both questions, of course not! We go about our daily routine with very little thought given to the aforementioned risks as life goes on. We base our rationale on possibility versus probability. There are those who have the sky falling, as everything is possible, but the folks who crunch numbers based on past experience talk in probabilities. Like what was the probability of that clevis failing? It is the real world we operate in and therefore we must, when making a risk assessment, consider probability over possibility. Doing so does not negate a review of all the risk factors that may be encountered on scene and consideration given to both possibility and probability. The proper risk analysis requires one to eliminate any life hazard whenever and wherever possible, or to reduce the risk hazard by altering the plan of operations whenever the hazard cannot be eliminated, and in this case visually checking the tow rope/cable and related equipment.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines Probability as a number expressing the likelihood that a specific event will occur, expressed as the ratio of the number of actual occurrences to the number of possible occurrences. It defines Possibility as the fact or state of being possible, something that is possible; and it defines Accident as an unexpected and undesirable event, especially one resulting in damage or harm: car accidents on icy roads. Risk is defined as a factor, thing, element, or course involving uncertain danger.

Could one have planned for such an incident? The possibility of the tow rope or cable may have been a passing thought for most on scene personnel. How old was the cable or rope? Was it inspected prior to use? It would still have to penetrate the windshield, which was acting as a simple protective barrier, but whoever would think it would or could happen. How about your operations at motor vehicle incidents do you clear the immediate area of all personnel whenever the tow truck hooks up to a disabled vehicle? What is the reliability and dependability of the tow cable? Who certifies the operator of the tow vehicle? Many questions to which I don’t have the answers, but all pose the potential of risk should the cable snap and how much thought do we give to that occurring? Do we continue to second guess ourselves about every detail after making a decision, if we do, nothing will be accomplished? There is only so much that we can prepare for without becoming paranoid. If we believe that everything can and will go wrong, there will be little need for us to leave the fire station. We do our best to be prepared and sometimes, despite all our efforts, things just don't go the way we had anticipated.

In this incident I believe accident is the correct word, what occurred was just an accident; unfortunately it claimed the life of a firefighter.

Till Next Time, Stay Safe and God Bless!

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HENRY CAMPBELLSenior Correspondent

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