Risk Versus Reward

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At 2:04 am the fire department was dispatched for a fire in a commercial building. Upon arrival the first engine reports a working fire and commences with interior fire attack. Upon entry, the engine crew reports high heat conditions and low visibility, but they pressed onward. Situational awareness is marginal. Soon the second engine and first truck arrives and are pressed into action. A second line is pulled and the truck commences with rooftop ventilation. The fire conditions worsens and a second alarm is called. Additional resources are deployed with additional hose lines. Despite the tenuous conditions, the firefighters remained true to their sworn calling, fight the dragon, and valiantly declare victory. The fire is out and no one is killed, despite several close calls. Been there? Seen that? What is to result of this heroic endeavor?

Vacant lot from structure fireSome two years later… a vacant lot is all at remains. The firefighters can count their blessings. No injuries and no fatalities, despite several close calls. Looking back at their efforts and the risk they took to “save” a building which would only be torn down within a month of the fire, one might wonder if  the risk justified the reward. Hell, I wonder if the risk versus reward notion was even on their mind as they stretched their hose lines down those high-heat, no visibility hallways. I wonder if anyone thought:

What the hell are we doing here?

What are we trying to accomplish that is worth the possibility of my children being orphaned?

If I die in this building tonight, will it have been worth it?

Chief Gasaway’s Advice

SolutionsEvery incident should be viewed from a perspective of risk versus reward. If you cannot bring yourself off the high perch of self-emulation (one where it is thought that dying for the namesake of being a firefighter is a noble way to die), then think about those you will leave behind.

If a firefighter had died fighting the fire in the building pictured above, what would his or her widow say to their children as they stood on that street corner looking at that vacant lot, holding hands, tears rolling down their cheeks wishing for a their loved one back.

NOTE: I realize this post may be controversial and may not be enjoyable to read. It calls into question the logic some firefighters apply toward justifying risk taking. When I was on the line I never was much in favor of being an ‘outstanding‘ firefighter (i.e., being one to stand outside a burning building).

However, with age comes wisdom and as I look back on my life as a firefighter I now realize I took a hell of a lot of risk where the reward was not worth it. I was lucky enough to come home to my family every time. And I mean it… I was LUCKY! And for my efforts, there are still some vacant lots… 25 years later. Thanks be to God that I am here to rant about it.


Situational Awareness Matters!

  1. Discuss how your fire department trains personnel to assess risk versus reward?
  2. Discuss a time when you may have found yourself in a high-risk situation where the reward did not justify the risk?
  3. Discuss a scenario you know of where firefighters risked their lives to “save” a structure that was subsequently torn down? Discuss the risk versus reward of such actions.

The mission of Situational Awareness Matters is simple: Help first responders see the bad things coming… in time to change the outcome.

Safety begins with SA! 

Share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.



Email: Support@RichGasaway.com
Phone: 612-548-4424
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About Rich Gasaway

Richard B. Gasaway served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic and fire chief. He earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree while studying how individuals, teams and organizations develop and maintain situational awareness and make decisions in high stress, high consequence, time compressed environments. Dr. Gasaway is widely considered to be one of the nation's leading authorities on first responder situational awareness and decision making. His material has been featured and referenced in more than 400 book chapters, research projects, journal articles, podcasts, webinars and videos. His research and passion to improve workplace safety through improved situational awareness is unrivaled. Dr. Gasaway's leadership and safety programs have been presented to more than 42,000 first responders, emergency managers, medical providers, military personnel, aviation employees, industrial workers and business leaders throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.
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3 Responses to Risk Versus Reward

  1. tim gula says:

    So far I am enjoying the first book I purchased. Hopefully will have time to finish it this week. The website has been a great tool to learn from and show my colleagues around the firehouse.

  2. Bill Gough says:

    Hi Rich,
    Whilst nobody could say our ‘cultural’ approaches to firefighting are the same, risk-versus-benefit is the very essence of fire attack and risk taking over here in the UK and has been for 30 years or so. It’s embedded in our operational risk management approach.

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