Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

Roles of a Safety Officer in the Emergency Management Setting

August 2019
Billy D. Hayes
SafetyGram Editor

While we are in the height of hurricane season, and as one spins across the Atlantic as we speak, I thought it a good time to spotlight the roles of a safety officer in the emergency management setting. Often, a fire department safety officer will be plugged into the incident command system (ICS) in an emergency operations center (EOC); however, the roles and responsibilities are somewhat different. In this SafetyGram, we will discuss just a few things to look for should you be placed in the EOC.

In the ICS system, the safety officer reports directly to the incident commander (IC). One of the first things a safety officer should do is verify with the IC what is expected in the role they play. As we all know, communication is a key factor in failures during incidents. Identifying the lines of communications, expectations, roles and responsibilities outside of what the textbook may outline is critical during crisis incidents. Further, understanding the scope of authority the safety officer is provided by the IC has an impact on whether he or she feels empowered to speak up to stop unsafe practices.

The next thing a safety officer should consider is a basic review of the EOC itself. Most EOC’s are assembled at the last minute. Monitor the setup and activation of the EOC, conduct a risk identification and analysis, and ensure that there are security measures in place. While it sounds miniscule to look at furniture arrangements, extension cords, trip hazards, and more, it is difficult to help those in the field when there are dangers in the EOC. As things can become chaotic, just like on a fire scene, the safety officer has the responsibility of watching for unsafe practices.

Speaking of chaos, the safety officer should work closely with the IC to make sure that the EOC is a controlled environment for success. As incidents escalate, so do the activities in the EOC, which often results in noise. Depending on the size of the EOC, and the number of people working in it, noise levels can quickly rise resulting in distractions where critical communications can be missed, and mistakes to be made.

Controlling the chaos in the EOC is also challenging because the individuals assigned to the various positions often come from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. A lower ranking member of a fire department assigned as the safety officer, asking other chiefs, directors, and even elected officials to be respectful of the noise levels can be very intimidating. Thus, the early communication with the IC as to the level of authority is important for everyone to understand the intent of the safety officer.

The safety officer should also work with the planning group to identify operational periods in the incident action plan (IAP), as well as with logistics to identify the resources needed to execute the IAP. On fire scenes, it’s easier to think about rotating crews through rehab as typically the operational periods are minutes and not hours, or days. As the safety officer is tasked in a larger incident and executes their role from the EOC, the scope of operations can often be underestimated. The safety officer’s involvement with the various branch directors and support team leaders is imperative as a direct report of the IC.

Obviously, the scope, size, and duration of the incident will have a direct impact on those operating in the EOC. Major incidents that are of high intensity, large destruction, and/or loss of life, are mentally stressful. The safety officer should scan the EOC frequently to evaluate individuals to identify those who may be more impacted than others. Having “bench depth” of individuals to serve in key positions is important so breaks can be assigned more frequently as needed.

The climate in the EOC is more controlled and comfortable than that of being in the field. The safety officer should also keep an eye on the weather to see how it influences the workers outside in the elements. Focus should not only what is happening at that moment but keep an eye on radar and conditions for the outlined operational period.

Finally, as the incident begins to conclude and demobilization of crews in the field occurs, as well as closure of the EOC, the safety officer should monitor this period just as closely and not fall into a false sense of security. When the adrenaline goes down, often does situational awareness. Mental and physical exhaustion may be present, and, individuals in a hurry to escape the confines of the EOC, or those in the field to return to base or quarters, can overlook safety hazards. The safety officer should be vigilant to the end of the incident.

This SafetyGram only highlights a few of the responsibilities of the safety officer operating in an emergency management function and in the EOC. There are certainly many more to mention; however, the intent is to draw a contrast of what of the differences in the role of a safety officer on a smaller scale “everyday” emergency versus larger events which are more complicated and have larger consequences.

Take Aways:

  • The safety officer in emergency management scenario and in an emergency operations center has distinct differences in roles and responsibilities than an individual on a fire scene.
  • Early communication with the incident commander is critical for the success of the safety officer.
  • The safety officer’s responsibility of helping the incident commander control the chaos out in the field and in the EOC, is imperative.
  • Safety vigilance begins before the EOC is activated and ends after it is closed, not just as the incident comes under control.