By Richard Marinucci
This issue of FireRescue brings the inaugural column from the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA), which will focus on firefighter safety from the safety officer perspective. There are two roles for safety officers: health and safety officer (HSO) and incident safety officer (ISO). This column will look at the ISO and some of the basics of the position.
The ISO role is outlined in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards 1500, 1521, and 1561. The basic umbrella standard for requirements for an occupational safety and health program is NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program. It outlines the necessities including emergency scene operations and the levels of risk that should be established as being acceptable.
NFPA 1521, Standard for Fire Department Safety Officer Professional Qualifications, defines the job performance requirements (JPRs) needed to function as an ISO and HSO. It is basically the job description.
The authorities and responsibilities of an ISO are listed in NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System and Command Safety. In addition to these specific standards, those performing the function of ISO must also meet the NFPA 1021 standard for Fire Officer I. Those holding the position of ISO (or HSO, for that matter) should be very familiar with these standards.
Besides the NFPA standards, there are other documents to consider. OSHA 29 CFR 1910.120 (Hazardous Materials), 29 CFR1920.146 (Confined Space), and 29 CFR 1910.1926 (Trench Operations) all have information for ISO responsibilities, and they all require an ISO at the scene of an operation involving hazmat, confined space, and/or trench operations. Other OSHA standards that should be known to ISOs are 29 CFR 1910.134 (Respiratory Protection), 1910.147 (Control of Hazardous Energy—lockout/tag out applications), 1910.1030 (Blood-Borne Pathogens), and 1910.1200 (Hazard Communications). The fact that there are standards and regulations for the position should be a strong indication that there is a need for competent, well-trained, and prepared ISOs available to respond to all incidents where the threat to safety exists.
The basic requirements outlined above only begin to outline the role of an ISO. First and foremost, the ISO must be passionate about firefighter safety. This does not mean that the ISO should be a naysayer or prevent firefighters from doing their job. The idea is to minimize the risks based on a risk management philosophy that allows more risks to save a savable life, less risk to save property worth saving, and no risk to save what is already gone. There are cases of firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) and injuries that appear to be “fate” and part of the job. These would seem to be more rare than other events that are preventable. If an ISO has the view that no firefighter intentionally does something to get hurt or worse, then he must begin to look at the core reasons for these to occur.
One way to view the cause of injuries and LODDs is to look at general reasons. One perspective is to consider the 3 Cs: competency, complacency, and cockiness. Many, if not most, firefighter injuries and fatalities could be placed into these categories. This is not to discount the occasional random event connected to a high-risk operation. The issue is the need for the ISO to analyze the causes of injuries and deaths and act to prevent future occurrences. If an ISO understands some of the basic premises, then he can better operate on the scene of an emergency when he is doing his job.
Competency is basically having the core abilities to do one’s job. The question needs to be asked as to whether the firefighter, company officer, and command officer were adequately prepared to do their job. This would involve the skills, knowledge, and ability to perform the work. Organizations and the individuals in them must perform an honest evaluation of their capabilities to ensure that they are appropriate for the hazards likely to be faced. They must also practice so that they have the competence to do so—both consciously and unconsciously. There must be sufficient repetition to create recognition prime decision making so that firefighters default to proper actions when placed in a stressful situation. This is most important during low-frequency/high-risk events. It is during these calls that the firefighters are potentially placed in the most vulnerable positions. Firefighters should not be placed in positions without some prior preparation. Asking them to perform without the right training is a recipe for disaster.
Complacency often sets in when incidents appear routine. Repeat incidents to the same location, benign sounding calls, busy days, automatic fire alarms, and other reasons sometimes lead firefighters to let their guard down. They can get “focal-locked” on a particular task and lose track of everything else that is going on around them. Their concentration on one item blocks out almost everything else. Everyone is susceptible to this, regardless of the occupation. It also happens off the job. Fortunately, much of what one does will not lead to serious consequences. Unfortunately, the fire service presents many dangers, and a failure to recognize an issue can result in a bad outcome. There is no magic to keep firefighters from getting complacent. This is one reason an ISO is required. Their sole responsibility is to keep firefighters as safe as possible. One way to minimize the risks that firefighters face is to keep them from getting complacent. This is very challenging looking at the long term. Over a career, consistency can vary because of many factors. Proper preparation and daily training can help.
Cockiness is not something that can be easily measured. At some point in their career, almost all firefighters go through a moment where they believe they know everything there is to know and don’t expect anything negative to happen. In some ways, they think they have a superhero cape on them that will protect them. This is not necessarily a conscious behavior. They have complete confidence in their ability to the point where they are resistant to training, coaching, mentoring, or suggestions. Fortunately, most firefighters get over this relatively quickly. But, when firefighters don’t think anything can hurt them, it creates an environment where anything out of the ordinary can cause harm. Supervisors are very important when trying to address this. The ISO is also important and can offer the right suggestions on emergencies to minimize risks. Recognition of this and which members are susceptible can raise awareness of the need to pay more attention to actions and operations.
Create a System
For ISOs to be effective, they must develop a system to handle the job. Various standards and regulations provide basic guidelines, but safety officers must go beyond the bare minimum requirements. While competence, complacency, and cockiness are discussed here, an ISO may have his own way to look at the general challenges that are present. There needs to be an understanding of some of the core issues that lead to unsafe acts. Along with this understanding is a requirement that the ISO establish credibility in the organization. This “street cred” varies from organization to organization, but safety officers who have earned it are more likely to be successful when operating on an emergency scene. There is an element of trust that is crucial. The incident commander must trust the safety officer and so must all the firefighters and officers. When safety issues are discovered on the fireground, it is no time to assemble a committee to discuss, nor is it time to question the capabilities of the ISO. The ISO must also be competent, eliminate complacency, and never get cocky.
Richard Marinucci is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.