Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

Steve Prziborowski

Safety Officer Development:

Do we truly care about our personnel? Are our personnel our greatest asset? Do we want to do our best to reduce injuries and fatalities on the fireground? If the answer is yes to the above three questions, which I hope it is, then that means your department should support the idea of a safety officer program and ensuring that a dedicated safety officer responds to every significant incident, ideally not an individual already assigned another response task.

Regardless of the size of your department, history and best practices determine that we should be sending a dedicated safety officer to each significant event, to assist with ensuring with the health and safety of our personnel. Don’t believe me? Look at virtually any Line-Of-Duty-Death (LODD) after action report and you will probably see a recommendation that the department should provide such a response.

In understanding the Incident Command System (ICS), the Incident Commander (IC) is responsible for filling every position within the organizational chart, unless they dedicate someone to fill that role. A goal of the ICS is not to check the boxes or fill the positions; it is to assist the IC with managing the incident in an organized manner that helps provide for the safety of all personnel.

Furthermore, within the ICS, the safety officer is one of three positions that comprise the Command Staff (the other two being liaison officer and information officer), all reporting to the IC.  While it is true that a dialed-in IC can manage multiple positions without having to delegate, the role of safety officer is not a position that an IC should be attempting to multi-task. There is enough responsibility on the IC without having to add the extra weight of a safety officer assignment.

In theory, everyone on the fireground should be a safety officer. Firefighters, drivers, company officers and chief officers should always be on the lookout for hazards and for ensuring the health, wellness and safety of our brothers and sisters. Each and every one has an obligation to be situationally aware, and recognize, attempt to mitigate, and notify through the chain of command, any current and/or potential emergency scene hazards.

While it takes a village as they say, it is still important to have that one person (could be multiple persons based on the complexity of the incident) who is focused primarily on safety. No, they are not the “safety police.” If they are telling you to wear your gloves or your SCBA, your culture has bigger problems. That’s the stuff you were taught in recruit school and if someone has to remind you to wear your gear at an emergency, there is definitely a failure in leadership at the firehouse level.

While it is not necessarily required that an incident safety officer be a current company officer or chief officer, it is usually a best practice for them to be a fire officer, given the on-scene authority and conversations they will be faced with.

For that person who is serving as the dedicated incident safety officer, they should be trained and certified, at the minimum, in the following subject areas:

  • Firefighter I and II (and any other levels recognized in your State);
  • Fire Officer
  • Safety Officer
  • ICS 100 (Introduction to ICS)
  • ICS 200 (Basic ICS)
  • ICS 300 (Intermediate ICS)
  • Modern Fire Behavior techniques
  • Building Construction
  • Strategy and Tactics
  • Command and Control
  • Accident Investigation Techniques
  • National Fire Protection Association 1521 (Standard for Fire Department Safety Officer Professional Qualifications)

Additionally, the Fire Department Safety Officers Association offers a valuable two-day class: Incident Safety Officer Academy, as well as an Incident Safety Officer – Fire Suppression Certification. It’s one thing to be trained on a subject; it’s another thing to actually be certified on a subject. Certification shows a level of competency as the individual typically has to achieve in some form of certification examination, as opposed to just attending a class, or in some cases, “paying the fee and getting a B.”

Before determining the minimum qualifications and training necessary for your incident safety officers, a good suggestion is to network with other departments, research the Internet for best practices (why reinvent the wheel), and reference the latest version of NFPA 1521.

Even if you cannot afford to staff a full-time safety officer position on a shift schedule, it is mission critical to ensure someone is responding to fill that role. If it takes requesting an additional battalion chief from your own department or through automatic/mutual aid, so be it! The key is having the response protocol built into your systems, so it is an automatic response when needed. History has shown the most dangerous time on the emergency scene is the first 15 or so minutes. If you don’t care about your personnel, who will?

Key Take-Aways

  • Safety officers are a key position within the Incident Command System.
  • Avoid tasking the Incident Commander with the roles and functions of the safety officer.
  • Safety officers should be a part of the response system in the earliest of stages.
  • Individuals serving in the safety officer position should possess training and certifications.
  • Contact the Fire Department Safety Officers Association for more information.

Helpful Links

Steve Prziborowski has over 25 years of fire service experience, currently serving as a Deputy Chief for the Santa Clara County (Los Gatos, CA) Fire Department. Steve is also an instructor for the Chabot College (Hayward, CA) Fire Technology Program, where he has been instructing fire technology and EMS classes since 1993.  Steve was named the 2008 California Fire Instructor of the year, is an Executive Board Member for the California Fire Chiefs Association (serving as the Northern Division Director), and is a Former President of the Northern California Training Officers Association.

Steve is a state-certified Chief Officer and Master Instructor, has earned a Master’s degree in Emergency Services Administration, has completed the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy, and has received Chief Fire Officer and Chief Training Officer Designation through the Commission on Professional Credentialing. Steve is a regular speaker and presenter at fire service events and conferences across the country, has presented over 200 sessions in 22 states, has authored over 170 articles in the leading fire service publications, and has published three career development books: Reach for the Firefighter Badge, The Future Firefighter’s Preparation Guide, and How to Excel at Fire Department Promotional Exams!