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: Why do we designate a safety officer? What authority does the...


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  • 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.