Incident Safety Officer: Duties and Responsibilities

Maybe one of the ISO?s most important duties is forecasting unsafe acts, conditions and behaviors, before they happen.

The person that takes on the role of ISO must be a very capable person. Keep in mind, some incidents, because of size or complexity will require more than one ISO. Most departments establishes an ISO and then provides him/her with the required number of assistant ISO's that are necessary to properly handle the job. A hazardous materials alarm or a train derailment with injuries would be good examples when more than one ISO is needed.

Maybe one of the ISO's most important duties is forecasting unsafe acts, conditions and behaviors, before they happen. By understanding the dynamics of the operations, the ISO should be able to predict what most likely will happen next. By knowing building construction features, the ISO could foresee a secondary collapse at an urban search and rescue scene. Another example would be for the ISO to expect and plan for a secondary explosive device at a terrorism-bombing incident. The ISO must always be observing the actions and situations in front of him/her as well as think about what will soon be happening.

One needs to consider that all most all EMS/fire/rescue personnel fatalities and injuries happen at highly predictable events. If we are killing or hurting our members at highly predictable events, we should be able to prevent these same casualties. Undoubtedly, there will be EMT's, firefighters and/or paramedics that read this paragraph and take exception to this notion. However, simply review the NIOSH or NFPA investigation reports to sadly realize that it is a true statement.

A few case studies would reveal that there were no indications of a future event that would unfold and hurt responders, these situations are few and far between. However, many more times than not, many preceding clues were present indicating looming disaster, but not heeded.

A couple of the case studies indicate that patient care was started on an interstate highway without any type of barriers or separations between the responders and the high-speed traffic. Not so unexpectedly, in the heat of battle our guys step out into the on-coming vehicles and get killed. It seems like building collapse signs and signals are frequently missed. A large city the fire department was called out to handle a major warehouse blaze. The fire units were at this call for an extended period of time. The building was fully involved and the fire was out of control. It was easy to determine that this burning structure was a very old building and not savable (risk nothing to save nothing should come to mind).

With all of these overt clues, a large number of firefighters attempted to make entry into the only part of the building that was not ablaze. Within a few minutes an "inward/outward" wall collapse occurred, killing one member and injuring many others. Neither case should have been a surprise to the IC or the ISO. The goal would have been to forecast the upcoming events and to prevent them from occurring.

To assist the incident safety officer balance all of these responsibilities, the use of a checklist should be incorporated. The checklist becomes a job aid to help ensure that every aspect of the incident get addressed from a safety standpoint. A good starting place for a checklist is as follows:

This list should be adapted to your local needs and conditions. Further, the authors consider this example list as being "under construction" or constantly being revised for improvement sake.

If we are going to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities that occur each year to our people, we must improve the capabilities of our safety officers. Consider building the "command team" process. This is not to take away authority or responsibility, but should only serve to improve decision and supervision. Remember that incidents should be directed by an incident action plan.

Typically, this is used as a guideline and not necessarily written out. At large scale situations; you may want to record the IAP on paper. Using a team approach coupled with a specific incident action plan should help make your operations safer and more effective. Incorporate the challenge and confirm process between the IC and the ISO at every major incident.