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Risk Versus Reward

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 the 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 condition 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 the result of this heroic endeavor?

Vacant lot from structure fireSome two years later…a vacant lot is all that 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 to 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  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 risks where the rewards were 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.

Action Items


  1. Situational Awareness Matters!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.


Now, for the first time ever, you can receive the content of this valuable safety programs in the NEW Situational Awareness Matters Virtual Academy… at your own pace – from home or while you are on-duty.


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.



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7 thoughts on “Risk Versus Reward”

  1. 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. 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.

  3. Very good, Rich! I agree with your observations and conclusions 100%! I had similar life experiences during my 33 years as a line firefighter,officer and battalion chief. What we are asking our colleagues to do today is not so sexy, romantic, nor blindly heroic. But it is the right thing to do for the citizens we protect and the families that we love. Thank you for stepping out there to point out what should otherwise be obvious to each and every one of us. Keep up the fight my friend. The consequences are extraordinarily important!

  4. Dave Snetsinger

    Good discussion. I have been there. As a Chief, I made the decision to let a building burn. Later we found that two young adults were in there. The outcome would not have been different, but the recovery and investigation was so difficult. I knew better, but my mindset on this building influenced my poor decision.

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