Is Your Safety Officer Freelancing?

There appears to be considerable confusion and misinformation concerning the proper role of the safety officer at an emergency incident. This confusion involves two distinct areas:

  1. Why do we designate a safety officer?
  2. What authority does the safety officer enjoy and what is the source of that authority?

Why do we need a safety officer? No one would argue with the fact that the incident commander (IC) is ultimately responsible for the safety of all concerned with the incident. The IC is, in fact, held to be directly responsible for overall incident safety if he or she chooses not to establish the safety officer position. Others responsible for the safety of their individual commands or units include all members of the command and general staffs, from the operations chief to the division and group supervisors down to the company officer on each individual tactical unit. Even each firefighter is held accountable for his or her own actions as they relate to safety. Surely there are more than enough individuals on the scene concerned with safety. But what is the level and quality of that concern?

Photo by Michael Asaro
Units operate at January 1995 fire in a vacant wooden building in Waterbury, CT. The fire quickly spread to two occupied dwellings, leaving 24 people homeless. The safety of personnel operating on a fireground deserves someone's undivided attention, and that person is the safety officer.

The only reason for establishing a safety officer position, aside from the specialized expertise an individual might have developed with certified safety training and/or experience, is that safety is that person's sole assignment. That is to say, the safety officer, unlike the others mentioned, has no other (conflicting) tactical objective to achieve. We all recognize that when given the responsibility to complete an urgent assignment, safety concerns can in moments of stress and intense desire to achieve a goal tend to be compromised.

The safety of our personnel who perform this most hazardous occupation certainly deserves someone's undivided attention. Why is it, then, that we operating personnel sometimes actually resent the one person whose sole assignment is to look after us? One reason may be confusion number one, concerning the need for a safety officer. "This is my company (or battalion or division, etc.). And these are my firefighters. I've always taken good care of them. Why do I need this outside interference?" The concept of the safety officer as a coordinated extra measure of safety which in no way impugns mistrust in anyone's capability must be made clear to all.

Another reason for the resentment may have to do with confusion number two authority perhaps caused by the occasional tactlessly authoritarian and overbearing safety officer. This is the rare individual who, drunk with power, barks orders at everyone within earshot as if he or she never heard the words "unity of command." One common characteristic of all good fire officers is that they jealously dislike anyone but themselves ordering their crews around.

Since the safety officer is appointed by the IC, his or her authority clearly derives from the IC. As a member of the command staff, the safety officer reports directly to the IC. That role, then, is essentially advisory in nature, that of considering safety concerns as they relate to the tactical plan, pointing out possible safety hazards and unsafe practices, offering safety suggestions and monitoring operations.

Consider the Incident Command System Field Operations Guide (ICS-420-1) as taught by the National Fire Academy: The safety officer, a member of the command staff, is responsible for monitoring and assessing hazardous and unsafe situations and developing measures for assuring personnel safety. Although the safety officer may exercise emergency authority to stop or prevent unsafe acts when immediate action is required, the officer will generally correct unsafe acts or conditions through the regular line of authority. The officer maintains awareness of active and developing situations, approves the Medical Plan (ICS Form 206) and includes safety messages in each Incident Action Plan.

  • Obtain a briefing from the IC.
  • Identify hazardous situations associated with the incident.
  • Participate in planned meetings.
  • Review Incident Action Plans.
  • Identify potentially unsafe situations.
  • Exercise emergency authority to stop and prevent unsafe acts.
  • Investigate accidents that have occurred within incident areas.
  • Review and approve Medical Plan.
  • Maintain Unit Log (ICS Form 214).

As you can see, the safety officer should be too busy to swagger around the fireground countermanding orders willy-nilly. Whenever possible, the safety officer should clear with the IC any actions he or she might wish to take which may affect the action plan, and should also normally work through the appropriate supervisor.

The safety officer is granted authority to bypass these normal channels under the following circumstances: when an accident, injury, collapse, backdraft, etc., appears imminent, and there is insufficient time to gain a clearance for his or her actions or discuss the matter with the unit leader in order to prevent the unsafe condition, the safety officer may take immediate action to halt the unsafe action or remove the unsafe condition. The safety officer should also keep the IC apprised, when appropriate, of any such emergency action taken.

It is this emergency authority (shared by any firefighter when justified to prevent imminent disaster) which causes some to believe the safety officer is (or should be) autonomous. I have actually heard and read some prominent fire service leaders (who should know better) even go so far as to suggest the safety officer should outrank the incident commander. Like the man who shot down an airplane that was intruding on the airspace over his backyard, one can get carried away with even a well-established concept. Any sound idea becomes fanaticism if taken to extremes.

This thinking (despite its understandable concern for the vital goal of safety) is not only absurdly illogical, it is downright unsafe. What would these same fire service leaders say about other general/command staff, division/group supervisors, company officers or firefighters acting independently of even contrarily to the IC at an emergency?

One can hear them crying in unison the dreaded and damning words "freelancing." Yet what else but freelancing is the unapproved action of a staff member outside the scope of his or her authority which goes uncoordinated by the one individual responsible for the entire incident?

True, the IC may be foolish to deny the advice of the safety officer (unless in possession of superior information or otherwise justified in disagreeing with the offered assessment). The fact remains, however, that the IC must, if he or she is to accomplish the strategic goal, retain authority commensurate with his or her grave responsibility.

The safety officer is a vital tool in our incident command system tool box. As such, the position must be used correctly. Misuse tends to dull that tool and ultimately render it less useful even dangerous.

Charles R. Angione is deputy chief for suppression operations for the City of Plainfield, NJ, Fire Division. He holds a Fire Science Technology certificate and is a state-certified incident commander, fire service instructor II and fire marshal.