Disaster. Crisis. Disease. Horror. While the multitude of humans avoid these like a plague, pun intended, they are the basis of why fire and emergency services exist. Our current world environment subjects us to an abundance of hazards, risks, and dangers, both seen and unseen.
Emergency incidents are inherently dangerous and often chaotic, especially when they are unfamiliar or unpredicted. Many of the incidents we routinely respond to are on a relatively small scale. During these types of emergencies, measures to ensure our safety are typically well established and easily followed. However, standard procedures and personnel safety can instantly be put to the test when an abnormal, large-scale, or unexpected event happens.
Major disasters expose fire and rescue professionals to a host of risks that they normally don’t encounter. Because of the unknown and unpredictable conditions that personnel must operate in, safety measures during a large-scale event can often fall short. While most of us realize that eliminating every aspect of danger in our profession is impossible, we can limit potential harm by managing risk. Thus, the question arises, how can we do this when the situation is unknown?
Knowns and unknowns
In 2002, the concept of knowns and unknowns was highlighted and made famous by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, when he was speaking about the limitations of intelligence reports: “There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
This thought process meshes well with risk management, as the prime purpose of measuring risk is to identify the probability and severity of any given situation or event. In other words, we estimate the frequency or likelihood of a specific event, and then the severity or potential losses associated with that event happening. By doing so, we can then prepare and mitigate the risks for these unexpected incidents. However, how do we differentiate between the known and unknowns.
The Known. Recognized. Familiar. These are the situations that are routine, well-studied, and are often mitigated by following predetermined sets of rules or guidelines. Known risks are divided into two categories; known knowns and known unknowns. Known known risks are risks we are aware of and their outcomes are largely known. For instance, we know from statistics that nearly fifty percent of LODDs are related to cardiac arrest, hence, we address firefighter health and fitness with specific programs to mitigate that known risk. Known unknowns, however, are risks that are known, but we are unaware or don’t fully understand their effects and extent. An example may be that we know a river floods during heavy rain, however, we are unable to predict the amount of rain or the extent of damage resulting from it. Planning for these situations is demanding, but not impossible.
The Unknown. Mysterious. Unforeseen. Phenomenon. Despite the name we place on it, an unexpected disaster can remarkably change people’s lives. Unknown risks are certainly the most dangerous because they can manifest at any time, unannounced. Unknown risks also have two categories; unknown knowns and unknown unknowns. Unknown known risks are the risks we would understand, but we don’t know that they exist. For instance, look back at firefighter occupational cancer or mental health. We knew firefighters were dying from cancer and that they were being affected by the horrible things experienced throughout their careers, however, we didn’t understand why for years. Unknown unknown risks are the most dangerous, because they are the ones we don’t even know about. These are risks that aren’t identified during preplanning and thus can’t be proactively managed. The lack of knowledge surrounding this type of event’s occurrence and its level of impact carry an unfathomable uncertainty. So, how much do we really prepare for the unknown? How many victims do we plan for? No one can really tell us.”
Think about the terrorist attacks in New York City in 2001, the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, the Australian wildfires in 2019, or the current Coronavirus pandemic. All of these large-scale events carried an unknown element with them; their extent of impact and the psychological effects that carried on well after the events.
Safety and survival
“You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown — only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood” – Captain James T. Kirk. Think about what that quote means. There will always be gaps in our knowledge, education, and preparedness. Is any single entity fully prepared to mitigate a large-scale disaster or public health threat? The answer is no. However, with continued training on an all-hazard scale, we can be ready to adapt and call upon outside resources to mitigate any disaster. Preparedness is not a destination, but rather a continuous process.
All emergency service agencies encounter risk on a daily basis, everything we do has associated risk. We cannot eliminate risks, but we can mitigate the damage caused by them through an all-hazard approach. The unfamiliar and unpredictable nature of unknown events is that they are problems we can’t prepare for or solve. This inability to prepare goes against the entire concept of emergency services, as we are all in the profession of preparedness.
However, we can employ reframing techniques to handle these unfamiliar problems. Reframing refers to a psychological technique where problems are viewed as challenges. This requires that we look at disastrous events in a different context, one of opportunity rather than obstacles. During a crisis, the physical and mental hurdles can be insurmountable. Yet, when looking back at every large-scale emergency throughout history, mankind has always prevailed. The unknown is understood, and the uncertainty becomes clarity.
Crew resource management (CRM) and situational awareness are two more key factors when surviving the unknown. Rare and unfamiliar events create countless elements of surprise and unexpected hazards. We must be acutely alert to what is happening around us, analyze the risks, and account for them as we adjust our tactics. Large-scale incidents will have a huge array of experienced personnel who should be used collectively to promote safety.
While we cannot plan for the unknown, we can continue to prepare for risk management during it. Surviving the unknown requires that we remain adaptable while limiting the impact of hazards as much as possible. The typical risk management process includes; identifying, evaluating, prioritizing, controlling, and monitoring potential hazards. This process must be done quickly during unknown events if we want to control the negative effects of risk.
Whether operating at a multi-alarm high-rise fire or over miles of hurricane devastated coastal land, our survival relies on a culture created around safety. A proactive, experienced, and accountable team works together to establish a safety culture. Investing in training and education is important, but an even larger part is how our emergency personnel see their role. In a culture based on safety, every individual has mutual trust in each other, takes ownership for their actions, and speaks up when necessary.
For more information, go to www.littlerock.gov