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Incident Safety Officers Crucial to Good Operations

Safety Officers Needed
Incident Safety Officers Crucial to Good Operations
Rick Russotti, CI/C, EMTP

The role of the incident safety officer or ISO is about to expand. Although some refuse to acknowledge the importance of the incident safety officer’s position, a competent and proactive safety officer plays a crucial role in emergency scene management. All to often the assignment as incident safety officer is seen as a lack-luster job without the real importance of other positions within the command structure. Some departments continue to relegate the position of safety officer to personnel who are considered “exterior” or support personnel while others dedicate those members on light-duty to the role. Failing to understand how a incident safety officer fits into the command structure and what he or she represents on the emergency scene or fire ground can be that first domino in less then successful events.

Incident Safety Officers are more then safety or equipment Nazis. While it is true that the ISO should be helping to ensure the proper use of PPE and observe for potentially unsafe situations or acts, he or she must undertake an active role in ensuring other important duties are accomplished. All to often the ISO is seen as a nitpicky nag that keeps “real firemen” from doing their job. Unfortunately, when personnel are assigned to the position of incident safety officer as a matter of default (they’re the last one on-scene or they’re on light duty), the role diminishes in credibility as those personnel finding themselves in this role by default may lack the training and background to be effective. This highlights the need for the incident safety officer to have the background practical experience combined with a depth of knowledge of fire ground operations. This combination of knowledge and experience equates to credibility on the part of the incident safety officer.

Experienced firefighters and officers can and do operate as effective incident safety officers…usually in those departments who’ve embraced the position and added some level of acknowledgement within the command structure. Although every person on the fire ground have a responsibility to act in a safety officer capacity, those assigned to the role should have demonstrated comprehensive knowledge of department standard operating procedures as well as established firefighting strategies and tactics. In short, the practice of assigning an incident safety officer by default shortchanges the members working at an incident and deprives the incident commander of an invaluable resource.

As other functional areas such as personnel accountability and responder rehabilitation continue to expand, they should fall under the direction of the incident safety officer in the command structure. This is not to suggest that the incident safety officer should actually perform the duties, rather he or she should ensure that they occur according to department procedure. Consequently as the complexity and geographical scope of an incident expands, so will the need for additional personnel to be assigned to the safety group and deployed so as to manage the incident safety officer roles within the given areas. Additionally, rehabilitation and accountability group leaders should be reporting to the Incident Safety Officer. Rehabilitation and accountability are just two of the functional areas that should be under the direction of the incident safety officer.

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