High Risk/Low Frequency


Remember the last time you responded to a trench rescue? Never? For most of us, the answer is identical. Structural collapse? Confined space rescue? Wilderness search and rescue? As “all-hazards” organizations, your fire company is going to be summoned to a wide range of incidents, some of which will be once-in-a-lifetime events. Repetition builds experience, but high-risk/low-frequency events demand a different approach than the “bread and butter” operations you can accomplish from memory.

Trench Collapse

It’s early spring, and a recent spike in temperatures has permitted crews to perform some critical work on a waterline. An 18-year-old worker is repairing a 12-inch pipe at the bottom of an unshored 15-foot trench that is approximately three feet in diameter. It’s a family business, and the worker’s father is operating the backhoe while his uncle and brother prepare a section of pipe to replace the one that is damaged. Although the father has more than 30 years of experience, the trench collapses on his son, burying him under tons of soil. You are the first-arriving engine officer (or chief officer). What do you do?

Learning from Others

Commercial pilots, responsible for the lives of thousands, must maintain a command-level knowledge of their job. But, is it reasonable to expect them to be able to recall from memory all of the steps (in the correct order) necessary to overcome an inflight emergency? Under the most extreme circumstances, these tremendously well-trained professionals do not rely on their memories to overcome chaos-they rely on checklists.

If you subscribe to the idea that the first five minutes of any incident are a predictor of the outcome, then your obligation is to ensure that the initial decisions made, actions taken, and orders given are 100 percent accurate and executed flawlessly. Such accuracy cannot be borne out of experience alone.

Every engine, truck, and emergency services unit that has the potential to respond to any high-risk/low-frequency event should keep a set of cue cards (i.e., checklists) in the vehicle cab that can be referenced quickly during response. The cards should describe, in large-print/bulleted form, the initial considerations for the first-arriving officer. Resist the temptation to put these on your tablets or smartphones. Technology is an amazing thing, right up to the point when it does not work and you are left in the Dark Ages. Who arrives first is far less important than ensuring that they are equipped with the tools to be successful.


Back to the trench collapse. First-arriving officers do not need to know that there are three classes of soil or that a square foot of soil weighs 100 pounds. The officer does not need to be a trench-rescue technician. As chief officers, our obligation is to ensure that initial companies are equipped to make the right decisions. The cue card could read as follows:

  • Do not enter any unshored trench >4 feet in depth.
  • Stop 250 feet from the reported incident address (turn off the vehicle).
  • Establish command and provide a Brief Initial Report (request police for crowd control).
  • Establish a Cold Zone, and direct all responders to stage 500 feet from the scene.
  • Establish a Hot Zone (100 feet), and remove all personnel from the area while shutting down all sources of vibration.
  • Determine the number of victims and the extent of the entrapment.
  • Call for additional resources.

Resource Protection

The trench incident is just one example of tragic circumstances to which we could be summoned, and although it might be perceived as unrealistic to expect company/chief officers to rely on checklists for high-risk/low-frequency events, requiring their use will inevitably and undeniably save responder lives. There are countless examples of first responders who have died engaging in a once-in-a-lifetime incident armed with nothing more than a servant heart. Tragically, this will not bring them home alive. Nothing can or should replace being a student of our service, and every day is a training day. Checklists, however, represent a nearly zero-cost way to demonstrably improve our performance when the varsity team has been called to the field.

Clarion UX