The Safety Engine Concept


As our pursuit of increased staffing and budgetary support continues, ask yourself, what's happening on the modern fire ground? Are we modifying our tactics to support the safety and survivability of our personnel during these troubling times, or are we taking short cuts hoping to make due? Fire departments across the country face these same taxing issues, some worse then others. Unfortunately, our means of overcoming these limitations has put us at a greater risk.

Photo Courtesy Timothy Sendelbach
The Safety Engine Concept A proactive alternative for fire ground survival.

Look around your fire ground, is it supportive of firefighter survival, or is it lacking those critical safety features previously established during every firefight? Critical factors such as adequate scene lighting for accountability and operational effectiveness, ladders for secondary means of egress/access, continual scene size-ups, an established Incident Safety Officer? Have these and other critical safety measures been eliminated from the modern fire ground, if so, why? Do we blame these shortages on budget constraints, staffing limitations, or is it just a failure to modify and/or realign our fire ground tactics?

As I continue to research fatal incidents of the recent past, I constantly find myself asking, are we doing all we can to make the modern fire ground safe and survivable? Are we utilizing the available resources to establish a fire ground that supports safety and survivability for all firefighters involved? While you ponder these thoughts, consider the following incidents; Worcester, MA (2 R.I.T. teams (four firefighters) initially deployed to rescue lost crewmembers conducting an upper floor search - 6 fatalities), Kansas City, MO (6 R.I.T. teams (twelve firefighters) initially deployed to rescue a lost/disoriented member in a smoke filled warehouse - 1 fatality), Austin, Texas (1 firefighter severely burned following a flashover - rescued via a passing firefighter who had heard the screams of the injured firefighter), Honolulu, HI 1 firefighter overcome by smoke, disoriented, lost, - rescued via an existing crewmember).

The aforementioned incidents are proven examples that we must do more. Case and point, rapid intervention teams used in what is considered their traditional sense are NOT the ultimate answer to our fire ground problems.

I would like to take this opportunity to introduce the Safety Engine Concept as a secondary means of developing a more "survivable" fire ground. This concept shines light on the fact that if we think about our own careers, most will agree that the likelihood of us facing a self-rescue situation is more probable then an actual rescue requiring outside assistance. If this is indeed the case, which I believe it is, then why don't we place more focus on establishing a fire ground that is more reflective of a "self-rescue" effort?

As Gordon Graham, Risk Manager of the California Highway Patrol once said, "If it's predictable, it's preventable." The Safety Engine Concept adopts this same philosophy in that it incorporates fire ground forecasting (a means of predicting what might occur) based on cue-based decision-making to initiate proactive measures, which support firefighter self-survival.

PLEASE NOTE: This in no way should be interpreted as a means of lessening the importance of rapid intervention teams. Rapid intervention teams are an absolute priority. The Safety Engine Concept is simply designed to be a proactive and/or preventative means of fire fighter rescue.

The Safety Engine Concept in Comparison

  • N.F.P.A. 1500 as is commonly interpreted, requires a team of no less then two members (I.R.I.T.) dedicated for firefighter rescue. This team of two (2) is encouraged to be stationary, non-committed, and non-fatigued. Once additional personnel arrive, a designated R.I.T. Team of four (4) shall be established.

  • O.S.H.A. 1910.134 (2 in/2 out - The Final Ruling) requires no less then two personnel outside the IDLH atmosphere available for firefighter rescued if the need arises. One of the two individuals located outside the IDLH atmosphere may be assigned to an additional role, such as incident commander in charge of the emergency or safety officer, so long as this individual is able to perform assistance or rescue activities without jeopardizing the safety or health of any firefighter working at the incident.

  • The Safety Engine Concept supports the philosophy of no less then two (2) prefer four (4) personnel responsible for establishing a fire ground that supports/promotes "firefighter self-rescue" as it's primary duty, and firefighter rescue as it's secondary role/responsibility. The Safety Engine Concept is designed to be in compliance with NFPA 1500 and OSHA 1910.134.

Traditionally, a dedicated rapid intervention team was required to be in a stationary non-committed position at or near the Command Post. The Safety Engine Concept in contrast, supports a crew that initiates proactive measures thereby reducing the possibility of deployment while at the same time remaining available for rescue if necessary. Simply put, common sense, discipline and proper training of all personnel assigned as Safety Engine personnel will ensure their readiness. No Safety Engine Crew should take on a task or assignment that will jeopardize their safety or that of a fellow firefighter if immediately abandoned.

The state of readiness to many departments has traditionally been a non-active roll, fully equipped, standing stagnant. The Safety Engine requires personnel to proactively deploy/initiate the tools and equipment that not only support the safety and survivability of firefighters but also allows for a quicker more effective rescue effort.

Dispatch Procedure

A Safety Engine should be assigned to every "high hazard" incident. High hazard incidents include, but are not limited to: hazardous materials incidents requiring entry, specialized rescue operations and any suspected/confirmed working fire. It is recommended that the third (3) due/arriving company be assigned as the Safety Engine to initiate proactive survival measures for initial arriving units.

Case studies and numerous state and federal standards mandate an early I.R.I.T./Safety Engine assignment. Departments who currently request a supplemental unit for the initial alarm need to reconsider the safety of the initial arriving crews, the vulnerability to sudden injury and or death is immediate, and the decision to assign a Safety Engine Crew should equally reflect the potential hazards involved. The recent fatalities in Houston, Texas (2/14/00) and Keokuk, Iowa (12/22/99) strongly support the necessity of a first alarm Safety Engine assignment.


When assigned as a Safety Engine, personnel should follow normal operating guidelines and proceed directly to the emergency scene. While responding, Safety Engine personnel should begin to prepare a rescue action plan for possible deployment, identifying the necessary tools, potential hazards, construction of the building involved, personnel assignments, etc.

Upon arrival, the Safety Engine Officer should report directly to the Incident Commander or IRIT Officer to notify of the teams arrival while obtaining a detailed briefing of the current assignments. If appropriate, the Safety Engine Officer should then relieve the IRIT team leader and begin reviewing the status of on scene personnel, and the established tactical worksheet.


Initial staffing will consist of no less than two (2) (upgraded to four upon arrival - combine with IRIT team on scene. Complies with: NFPA 1500 designation of a "dedicated" Rapid Intervention Crew). Minimum Safety Engine crew (1) Firefighter, (1) Officer. If staffing level is equal (4) four or more, the Safety Engine Crew should relieve the on scene IRIT members for an additional assignment.

The important fact to remember is, if we minimize the number of personnel assigned to the Safety Engine or we delay the assignment to a late arriving company we jeopardize the safety and survivability of the personnel operating on the incident scene.


Upon arrival of the Safety Engine Crew, the Safety Engine Officer shall identify a tactical channel to be assigned to Safety Engine operations prior to deployment. If the assigned Safety Engine Crew is from another agency, the Incident Commander should confirm the operating frequency and if necessary provide a portable radio for communications.

Photo Courtesy Timothy Sendelbach
The Safety Engine Officer should report to the IC for an initial incident briefing prior to initiating action on the fire ground.

Operational Guidelines

All Safety Engine personnel should follow the pre-established accountability procedures (i.e. adhere their accountability tags to the unit passport) prior to performing any additional duties.

As the Safety Engine arrives on the scene of a high-hazard incident, the initial action of the Safety Engine Officer is to meet and confer with the Incident Commander to any to identify any critical issues of concern, fire ground assignments and accountability. As the primary member of the Safety Engine crew the Safety Engine Officer is responsible for identifying the number of personnel assigned to the hazard zone, their primary assignments and the available equipment necessary for their rescue if the need be. The Safety Engine Officer should also remain at the command post to oversee personnel accountability, unit assignments, fire ground communications, and general tactical operations.

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