Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

The Safety Officer and Needed Fire Flow

As a member of the command staff, the safety officer is responsible for monitoring and assessing safety hazards or unsafe situations, as well as developing measures for ensuring personal safety. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1521 Standard for Fire Department Safety Officer, provides the safety officer the authority to “stop, alter, or suspend operations based on imminent threats posed to fire fighter safety.” Thus, the safety officer should possess expertise in fire behavior, tactics, and should participate in department functions such as pre-fire planning and company training. While all fire officers should also have these skills, the safety officer uses each skill to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the firefighters at the incident scene.

Given that premise, then should the safety officer be the incident commander, or should the incident commander be the safety officer?

Firefighting depends on constant evaluation of the operational action plan based on fire behavior. That evaluation includes the determination of and delivering the needed fire flow. There are two commonly used formulas to determine this: the National Fire Academy (NFA) and the Iowa formula. The NFA formula is easier to employ at the incident scene, while the Iowa formula can be used during pre-incident planning and determining water supply needs. The calculations ensure that adequate fire streams will control and extinguish the fire. The safety officer should monitor adequate fire flow and effective stream placement, relative to firefighter safety.

By controlling the growth of the fire, the structure is no longer being attacked, temperatures are being lowered, and the occupant survivability profile improves. However, water not converted to steam adds to the load imposed on the structure thus adding to the problems faced. The safety officer should evaluate, while communicating with command officers, the effectiveness of fire streams and their impact on the structure. Conversely, inadequate fire flow has the consequences of fire growth, structural weakening, and decreasing survivability. Fire crews may be lulled into a false sense that the incident is deescalating and will continue to operate in harm’s way.

The safety officer should also evaluate master and aerial stream placement. Offensive and defensive operations should not be mixed. Aerial and master streams provide large fire flow facilitating fast knockdown. Although, opposing streams, location of personnel, and the stream landing zone, (where the stream may be going when the nozzle operator cannot see the end point of the stream), all must be considered. Placement of aerial streams may also affect ventilation that may aid or compromise the situation. Pre-connected lines allow quick delivery of water. However, during operations where master streams are required to deliver the needed flow, preconnected handlines could diminish firefighter safety.

Twenty years ago, an article was written about what the author called “inch and a half creep.” This describes that firefighters on a defensive operation are inclined to want to be involved. Pre-connected lines are readily available to crews idled by master stream operations. As the boredom increased and the fire darkened, firefighters slowly moved closer to the structure, possibly entering the collapse zone. Another danger of pre-connected lines is that they are used routinely and may be put in operation when the fire flow from these lines is grossly inadequate.

Reduced staffing levels do not diminish the capability of delivering large fire flow. An engine company of four firefighters can deliver 1000 g.p.m. by utilizing a pre-piped master stream, large diameter hose, and an adequate water supply. Essential to the delivery of these large flows is pre-incident planning and training. The NFPA publication Fire Attack I by Warren Kimball describes evolutions for the fire attack team to deliver large volumes of water with limited resources.

Pre-incident planning is necessary to determine needed fire flow before the fire starts. Evaluation of the water supply system (hydrants) or availability of tenders (tankers) is essential.  Tactics, training and pre-planning may be the assigned function of fire officers other than the safety officer. However, given the responsibility of member’s safety and the mandate to “stop, alter, or suspend operations based on imminent threats posed to fire fighter safety” The safety officer must evaluate the effectiveness of operations with firefighter safety as the priority. If all command officers operate with solid strategic and tactical skills, then firefighter safety will be a function of command and command will be a function of safety.


  • The safety officer should participate in company training and pre-fire planning.
  • The safety officer should be familiar and proficient in strategy and tactics relating to fire stream application and need fire flow.
  • Defensive operations can escalate into safety issues when complacency and boredom arises.



Michael Petroff is a retired battalion chief from the Ferguson Missouri Fire Department. BC Petroff started his fire service career in 1971 as a volunteer for the Warrensburg, Missouri Fire Department and the Pattonville Fire Protection District. Hired by Ferguson in 1973 he progressed through the ranks, retiring in 2005. He served on the St. Louis County Overhead response team, and as an instructor for National, State and local fire agencies. After retiring from Ferguson, BC Petroff has served as Western Region Director, Vice-Chairman and Chairman for the Fire Department Safety Officers Association. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association 1021 Technical Committee, and an Advocate for the Everyone Goes Home Life Safety Initiatives Program.