One of the most critical positions of the Incident Management System (IMS) is that of Safety Officer. As the world of EMS, fire, rescue and emergency response has evolved so have the associated risks, on a daily basis, for our members.
In the not too distant past, risk management issues such as infection control, trench cave in, tactical medics, lightweight construction, hazardous materials and terrorism were unknown matters in the contemporary emergency service lexicon. Today, emergency response organizations that are not examining the complex implications that each pose are extremely short sighted and placing their members at risk. Each of these threats has brought with them new dangers to our job.
For years we have taken for granted or casually accepted the risks associated with emergency response but because of these new threats, and those to come, emergency services have experienced an elevation of exponential proportion relative to the safety hazards. Thankfully a structured process has been developed and time tested to address our safety needs.
To get started let us define the job function of the incident safety officer. This is the person or persons that work in the incident management structure as a member of the "Command Staff." This member takes on the role of a second set of eyes and ears for the Incident Commander.
Some departments have individuals that are a full-time Safety Officer to meet the needs of the department. Typically this member ensures that the organization is on the right track related to safety rules, regulations and professional standards of operation. You might find this person developing policy; inspecting equipment or conducting various safety related training. This member may or may not be the "scene safety officer."
In contrast, someone that is on location staffs the incident safety officer position. They are usually selected on an ad hoc basis (although some large departments response load may dictate the demand for a full time field safety officer or chief) using training education and experience as the requirements for assignment. Just like all other positions within the Incident Management System, there is no specific rank requirement for this post. The desire is however that the person assigned as the Incident Safety Officer (ISO) would be of significant rank bringing with them the experience and education that has collected over the years. The desire for an upper organizational player is two fold. First, the job assignment of ISO is one of the most demanding and difficult positions at an incident. Next, the safety officer possesses the authority to "override" the on-going operation if an unsafe act or unsafe condition develops. For these reasons, it is a very desirable situation to have a ranking senior member as the ISO. In fact, to properly understand all aspects of this critical job function the ISO should be qualified as an Incident Commander. It makes sense that if the ISO can shut down a specific operation at an emergency that they should understand the full and complete impact of their actions.
A concise way to describe the major role of an ISO is to use the commercial airline industry as a model. In the cockpit the pilot is in complete charge of the aircraft. The pilot decides when it is safe to take off or land. The first officer (co-pilot) occupies the right front seat as a "pilot in training." Rather then just traveling along for the ride, the first officer will "challenge and confirm" the decisions made by the pilot. To illustrate, if the pilot failed to extend and lock the landing gear, the corporate value dictates that the first officer would be there to remind the pilot to activate and lock the landing gear. Just one landing without the little wheels under the airframe and the pilot (and everyone else on the plane for that matter) is in big trouble.