As I speak at various fire service conferences and symposia, I often introduce each segment with a reference to firefighter safety and health. I highlight the frequency of cardiovascular-related injuries and deaths, and underscore the need for physical fitness. The data is irrefutable, and inaction is inexcusable.
A department’s approach to health and safety is established with the executive fire officer, supported through individual responsibility, and must be clear to each member of the department. This is further supported by the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives. Specifically, the first two initiatives state:
1. Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety, incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.
2. Enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service.
I’m encouraged at the progress the fire service has made over the last several years, and much of this progress can be attributed to the efforts of safety and health officers across the country.
Although many department budgets cannot support the sole assignment of a fire officer or firefighter for the purpose of safety and health, that should not prohibit assigning some of the associated duties to a qualified, motivated and responsible individual. NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program defines this position and identifies areas of responsibility. Assigning these responsibilities to an individual simply to fill an empty slot on an organization chart and with no empowerment to fulfill the job functions is counterproductive. Firefighters will view this as a hollow appointment and disengage. With that in mind, it’s important to find the right person to take on these very important duties.
Desirable traits for the safety and health officer include:
1. Sound character: Firefighter safety and health are sensitive subjects. Additionally, safety and health issues cross traditional disciplines, and will often become entwined with other division heads. Maintaining relationships is crucial.
2. Reliable: Many elements are timely and require prompt, accurate and thorough actions.
3. Experienced: The position requires the ability to think outside the box. Experience is a must and will add credibility.
4. Disciplined: The position requires focus and the ability to multi-task.
5. Life Safety Advocate: The safety and health officer should be an advocate for firefighter life safety. This includes a willingness to discover ways to implement the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives within their department and beyond.
Hone In on Safety
Part of the reason it’s important to identify the right person to handle the duties of the safety and health officer is because this position oversees a range of conventional activities that cross into other disciplines, including physical fitness, medical surveillance, facility safety, apparatus specification, PPE, training, incident safety and exposure.
The safety and health officer must remain on task in each of these disciplines. They are the advocate for injury reduction and must guard against the natural temptation to stray into the operational components of these disciplines. For example, the officer provides input into apparatus specification from the perspective of ergonomics, consistency of safety and warning devices with best practices. However, they must guard against getting involved with items like compartment size and hose loads to be carried, unless these items have a direct impact on firefighter safety.
In another example, the safety and health officer reviews training activities to make sure safety lines are in place, firefighters have a minimum proficiency level to be able to participate, firefighters meet a baseline fitness level, and the activity is not excessively difficult or stressful. However, these officers must guard against participating in or directing the activity while functioning in the safety role.
An emerging role for the safety and health officer involves post-incident analysis related to close calls, maydays or firefighter injuries. Some departments use this position to gather information related to a significant event and coordinate a systematic review of causal factors. These factors are evaluated, recommendations are made, and information is shared with the department and the fire service as a whole, which may even result in changes on a local level as well as a national level. Examples include the adoption of local ordinances to modifications in PPE.
The importance of assigning a fire officer to the position of safety and health officer cannot be overstated. The individual must hold key characteristics that will allow them to succeed in this role. In addition, the safety and health officer must be empowered and have the support of the executive fire officer. Department members will know if an individual is assigned to this role simply to fill a void, and an opportunity to influence the safety culture of a department will be lost. So pick wisely!