By Ronny J. Coleman

There is a television advertisement currently being broadcast that focuses attention on risk taking. The ad starts with an individual talking to a patient in a dentist chair. He states that the patient has an extremely bad cavity and then prepares to leave the room. The patient expresses his concern and the authority figure states that he is not really a dentist. Instead, he is a “dental monitor” and his job is limited to identifying the problem. He states that someone else must fix the problem. Then, the individual disappears leaving the patient with no solution.[1] The monitor takes no responsibility for the resolution of the patient’s problem.

This approach to problem solving might also be applied to the concept of coping with risk in the field of fire protection. Assessing risks and identifying them is not the same as taking action to resolve them. Risk assessment may identify gaps but risk mitigation eliminates them. The former is passive, the latter is proactive. We can easily apply this phenomenon to risk reduction involving specific occupancies. By identifying worst-case scenarios, we can often determine what actions need to be taken to reduce the risk to an acceptable level. If we do not reduce the risk to an acceptable level, then that phenomena can result in an unacceptable level of loss. This places the concept of pre-fire planning at a very high level of priority within fire department administration. Our jobs are to protect lives and property and we must define what acceptable loss is if we are to be true risk managers.

Incubation Period

Contemporary theory about disasters states, “accidents are preceded by periods of gradually increasing (but essentially unrecognized) risk.” This is known originally in man-made disaster theory as the “incubation period.”[2] Theorists in disaster theory believe that errors and events accumulate that result in a gradual drift towards a failure to meet the problem.[3]

In short, it is the time between when we recognize we have a problem and the actual consequences of the problem if it remains unmitigated. If risk assessment is done accurately and all scenarios considered, there should be no surprises if risk mitigation is not followed.

Let us use one example: the high-rise fire. In assessing the risk of high-rise buildings, it is easy to project extensive resource commitment to combat a fire in such an occupancy. As it has been stated in previous articles, there are only two things that a firefighter has to take into a building to combat a fire: water and air. Building these two resources into a building is a positive risk mitigation reaction and reduces the potential loss.

If a high-rise building were to be built in your town, there are two periods of time for managerial decision-making regarding the risk generated by that building. The first is pre-construction and the second is during an actual event. If we identify a risk and do not mitigate it during the pre-construction phase, the consequences can be complicated and predictable.

A literature search on high-rise buildings produces numerous documents that say that the logistics of maintaining water supply has pretty much been handled in the codes. On the other hand, replenishment of air supply is still relatively limited to a manual delivery system — air bottles are hand-carried by firefighters up numerous flights of stairs. This method of delivery of replenishment air has a significant impact on the local level of service —[4] [5] it is slow, inefficient, and antiquated. One tool we have to expedite risk mitigation in high-rise buildings is Appendix L of the International Fire Code.

Many fire departments have adopted SOPs that require substantial staffing resources to meet this air supply requirement. Often fires can create an environment in which the logistical support is overwhelmingly more severe than the actual firefighting itself. Therefore, if we know that element is at risk, requiring the installation of a firefighter air replenishment system (FARS) is the only risk reduction strategy that makes sense.

A simple simulation exercise can provide justification for this. How many resources do you anticipate are going to be consumed by having to manually provide for logistical supply train to maintain air supply? A classic example might include two to three engine companies and a truck company operated on the fire floor that would need to be supported. What does that do to the deployment coverage for the remainder of the community? Does it force the department into utilizing mutual aid?


The fire service has a current preoccupation with effectiveness and efficiency. Strong risk management practices that act upon mitigation are considered good management and an appropriate strategy. A high-rise fire in any given scenario is relatively predictable. The period of time between pre-construction and that inevitable fire is a variable. That incubation period may be decades and is all the more reason why risk mitigation must be on the same level of commitment as risk assessment. Fire departments that are preparing for the future would never allow a high-rise building to be built without an adequate standpipe system in place. It is equally important that the fire department consider firefighter air replenishment systems to be part of the risk mitigation as well.

Risk assessment is like the dental monitor mentioned previously. Risk mitigation is a positive assertion that needs to happen as early on as possible in a building’s construction. As high-rise buildings go higher into the sky, and are currently being contemplated, the installation of water and air supply should be at the same level as fire alarms and exits.


Ronny J. Coleman is a 50-year veteran of the fire service. He is the Past President of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Fire & Emergency Television Network, which features career development and succession planning in its Command Transfer series. He served as the Fire Chief in Fullerton and San Clemente, CA, and was the Fire Marshal of the State of California from 1992 to 1999. He is a certified fire chief and a master instructor in the California Fire Service Training and Education System. A Companion Fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers, he has an associate’s degree in fire science, a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in vocational education. In 2014, Chief Coleman received the Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement award from Fire Engineering. In 2015 he was awarded the International Public Safety Leadership & Ethics Institute Honors Award.  


[1] Lifelock Advertisement

[2] Dekker, Sidney, Pruchnicki, Shawn, Drifting in Failure; Theorizing the Dynamics of Disaster Incubation, Theoretical Issues in Ergonomic Science, DOI

[3] ibid


[5] Interstate Bank Building Fire USFA-TR-022/May 1988 Department of Homeland Security