Incident Safety Officers: Importance, Roles, and Responsibilities in the Fire Service

Incident Safety Officers: Importance, Roles, and Responsibilities in the Fire Service

Remarkable progress has been made in the area of fire service, thanks to technology together with improved leadership. Manufacturers of fire equipment have made laudable advances in providing state-of-the-art firefighting equipment; leaders in the industry have also worked hard to develop and implement appropriate procedures together with standards aimed at improving safety within the profession (Dodson, 2015). As a result of these, the incidence of fires and number of injuries and deaths has somewhat gone down. Nevertheless, dramatic improvements in fireground-related deaths and injuries are yet to be made. Because of this, it is claimed that “the fire service [has] not done a good job of taking care of [its] own people [and that it has] been providing a service at the expense of those providing the service” (Dodson, 2015 p.9). To strike a balance and ensure safety of all- the society and fire service personnel, Incident Safety Officers play a very important role in any fire department. This paper explores the importance, roles, and responsibilities of such officers.

Importance of Fire Department Incident Safety Officers

Responding to and fighting a fire is inherently a risky undertaking; the firefighter may end up getting injured and sustaining severe burns as he/she tries to put out the fire. This is arguably one of the reasons why it is necessary for firefighters to conduct a thorough assessment of safety hazards in a fire scene. At the same time, there is need to closely monitor all operations at a fire scene and develop appropriate measures that will ensure the safety of firefighting personnel (Dodson, 2015). These factors and considerations underscore why it is very important for every fire department to have a designated Incident Safety Officer.

Commonly abbreviated ISO, an Incident Safety Officer is defined as “a member of the command staff responsible for monitoring and assessing safety hazards or unsafe situations and for developing measures to ensure personnel safety” (Dodson, 2015 p.14). In simple terms, the ISO is crucial to fire departments as he or she maintains or rather ensures firefighters’ safety, without which it would be impossible to deliver quality and effective customer service. More precisely, the ISO is arguably the person on whom the ability of the fire department to deliver service and fulfill its mission depends. Without him/her, vital goals such as effective fire suppression and effective rescue efforts would be very hard to achieve.

Roles and responsibilities of a Fire Department Incident Safety Officer

Given the significance of Incident Safety Officers in fire departments, there are a variety of roles and responsibilities that such individuals execute. Before outlining these roles and responsibilities, it would be important to mention that ISOs are key components within a fire department’s Incident Command System. An Incident Command System is defined as “the standard organizational structure that is used to manage assigned resources so as to accomplish the stated objectives for an incident” (Ward, 2013 p.93). At the helm of this structure is the incident commander, to whom the ISO reports.

A summary description of the ISO’s roles and responsibilities is the acronym MEDIC, which stands for Monitor, Evaluate, Develop, Intervene, and Communicate. This is why it is popularly said that ISOs are an incident’s hazard MEDIC (Dodson, 2015). The first primary role and responsibility of an ISO is to monitor incident activities as well as conditions. Here, he/she is required to conduct a thorough survey of the environment within and around which an incident has occurred. Examples of factors to actively survey include buildings, utilities, and smoke traces. The ISO also monitors the environment by closely watching important activities such as actions of firefighters together with civilians. He/she may also do systematic visits to all areas where personnel are deployed (Klaene & Lakamp, 2020). All these options help the ISO to identify any safety concerns and act appropriately.

After monitoring incident environments and observing incident activities, incident safety officers also engage in a process of evaluating these activities together with environments. The objective of such assessment is to determine whether or not there is an existing or imminent hazard that could cause harm (Dodson, 2015). In other words, the ISO has the important duty of applying his/her understanding of operations dynamics to predict the likelihood of harm arising in a fire incident.

Thirdly, incident safety officers are assigned the responsibility of developing preventive measures to minimize harm and foster safety during the handling of incidents. According to Dodson (2015), it is the ISO’s responsibility and duty to design proactive actions in response to forecasted hazards. The measures and actions that are developed should be designed in a way that seeks to minimize possibility of harm, rather seeking to promote responder safety in incident handling.

The fourth primary responsibility of ISOs is providing appropriate intervention to an existing or prospective threat. After doing monitoring and evaluation of incident activities and environments, the ISO is expected to deliberately implement the action plans developed in response to the imminent or existing threat. Lastly, ISOs are the people responsible for communicating instructions and directives that will help prevent fatalities or injuries at the incident scene (Dodson, 2015). To do this, ISOs are free to use multiple channels of communication, including warning signs.

In summary, the key responsibility of ISOs is identifying dangerous conditions together with hazardous situations at a given incident, following which the ISO is required to recommend suitable safety measures. According to Ward (2013), ISOs typically act as observers; in this regard, they monitor conditions together with actions while at the same time assessing specific situations. Upon observing a situation or condition that is unsafe, the ISO determines the action that should be taken to ward off possible danger to firefighters. If no imminent danger is posed, the ISO enters into consultations with fellow officers and the incident commander as they look for a safe action course. Where it is determined that the situation poses imminent danger to staff, the ISO may authorize immediate suspension of activities (Ward, 2013). However, approval of the incident commander must be sought.

Usefulness of Incident Safety Officers on Scene

ISOs are useful on an incident scene in various ways. For example, the presence of an ISO in a fire incident scene helps minimize exposure of firefighters and emergency medical staff to carcinogens and toxic substances that could endanger their lives. Secondly, the likelihood of firefighters getting injured or even killed when conducting operations at an incident scene is greatly reduced when an ISO is present. It has statistically been established that more injuries and deaths to firefighters occur during scene operations (Kroboth, n.d). The ISO can reduce this by spotting potential hazards and warning firefighters to avoid dangerous locations. Thirdly, the ISO coordinates evacuation operations and ensures personnel are relocated to safe places.

Significance of Incident Safety Officers in Saving Lives: Evidence from NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation Reports

Numerous reports have been published showing the significance and need to have ISOs in any fire service department. One such report was published on 26th September 2019 and is recorded as Report Number F2018-11. The report documents an incident that took place on 25th June 2018 when a career captain was fatally shot as his colleague sustained injuries in the line of duty. As per the report, some of the factors contributing to the fatal shootings and injuries were unsuspecting fire fighters and the presence of an arsonist (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, n.d.). In line with the recommendations, the career captain’s life would have been saved had there been an incident safety officer at the scene. The officer would have provided the response crew with situational awareness, thus helping them to approach dangerous zones with a lot of caution. He/she would also have provided timely communication to the team so that they know how and where to venture.

An incident safety officer would equally have helped to save the life of the 49-year-old firefighter-paramedic that died on 15th October 2019 after being struck by a car while also on duty. In Report Number F2019-19, details of this incident are recorded. It emerges that the firefighter-paramedic was part of a team responding to smoke and odor of burnt plastic in a certain hotel. While attempting to get thermal imaging camera from the team’s vehicle, he reportedly fell backwards and was struck by a delivery van. Efforts to save his life proved futile and he died in hospital. Investigations revealed several contributing factors, among them being failure by the firefighter-paramedic to use the proper contact points when accessing the apparatus; proper traffic management around the incident area was also lacking (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, n.d.). In reference to the latter point, an incident safety officer would have provided warning and direction to the delivery van driver that he was approaching an incident area, hence the need to drive carefully. Additionally, the safety officer would have intervened by showing the firefighter-paramedic how to access and exit the apparatus in a safe manner.

Conclusion

Quality equipment, good leadership, and sound policies and standards are crucial to effective performance and service delivery in the fire department. However, safety of personnel is equally an important factor that must never be overlooked. It is unfortunate that fire departments provide excellent service to the community at personnel’s expense. To stop this, incident safety officers are recognized as playing an invaluable role in making sure that in an incident, efforts are made to ensure that everybody goes home safe. Through monitoring, evaluating, developing action plans, intervening timely and appropriately, and providing proper communication, incident safety officers promote and uphold safety of key personnel such as emergency medical staff and firefighters.

References

Top of Form

Dodson, D. W. (2015). Fire department incident safety officer. Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

Klaene, B. & Lakamp, T. (2020). Structural firefighting: strategy and tactics. Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Kroboth, J. (n.d.).  Safety Officer’s Role on the Incident Scene. https://zone.mfri.org/dom/Drill_pdf/DM_1003.pdf

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (n.d.). Firefighter fatality investigation and prevention program. wwwn.cdc.gov/NIOSH-fire-fighter-face/

Ward, M. (2013). Fire officer: principles and practice. Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

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