IMS Safety Sector

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.

The same thought process should go into managing an emergency incident. The Incident Commander places the treatment sector too close to the hot zone at a hazardous materials incident or maybe the IC misses the piece of heavy equipment that is still operating at a trench rescue operation, these and a myriad of other scenarios are played out on the battlefield daily. The safety officer concept embodies a strategy that acknowledges that threats to our members exist and empowers the individual who is fulfilling the safety officer position to remedy these situations immediately, after which the ISO makes notification to the Incident Commander of the problems and actions taken to correct the imminent problem. In a mature organization any qualified member should be allowed the opportunity to identify and correct out of balance acts or situations. Rather then being embarrassed or vindictive an effective commander will appreciate this type of proactive conduct as well as encourage its display through positive reinforcement of this behavior. The authors have seen and heard of circumstances where the safety officer was made to "pay" later for acting within their authority, ensuring that safety of members operating but having to "overrule" the direction of a more senior officer acting in the capacity of Incident Commander. This type of retribution not only discourages people from speaking up when discharging the duties of ISO but also places all members in harms way by discounting the degree of danger that may exist in order to sooth the bosses ego or "not wanting to rock the boat."

The next responsibility is to simply observe (look and listen) the entire operation. It is worthy to note that most accidents that occur are highly predictable events. For instance, if a medic uses a stretcher mattress as a "makeshift" sharps container at a mass casualty incident, it is likely that the department will soon have a needle stick injury to manage. If vehicles are not secured properly at the scene of an MCI changes are likely that a possible MVA will occur. Obviously these are very simple examples but the list goes on and on and the multi-dimensional safety threats ranging from oxygen deficient environments to structural collapses and traffic flow at an accident site being left uncontrolled all pose issues for the safety officer and the Incident Management System to address through implementation of pragmatic solutions to keep our members out of harms way. The first step in this process is to pre-identify the obvious threats that exist at out "garden variety" responses and then build on them considering the responses and solutions for the more complex safety issues we may confront in our communities.

Some of the items that must be observed and monitored when you are the Incident Safety Officer are:

  • Radio transmissions
  • Time
  • Weather
  • Progress reports
  • Tactical positions of members and units
  • Incident action plan
  • Equipment use
  • Structural stability
  • Vehicle positioning
  • Geography of established sectors
  • Hazardous substance behavior at haz/mat incidents
  • Environmental influences (oxygen levels etc)
  • Projected incident out-comes

By observing/monitoring these operational subcomponents (and many more) the ISO should be able to get a solid sense of the "safety worthiness" of an on-going operation. This may seem like a lot of "stuff" for one person to effectively address but keep in mind that at "high impact/high yield" MCI such as bus wrecks or building collapses the scene me demand that more then one Safety Officer or a staff be assigned to manage the safety risk of members. The authors recommend that if the situation requires the presence of additional safety personnel that the decision be made to have a single individual assigned as the "Safety Officer" with a staff of qualified individuals that work under the ISO. This will assist the commander with insuring that there is only one safety component within the incident action plan and streamline communications between the safety functional area. This translates into facilitating as safe a work environment for our members without the confusion of missed communication or mixed signals/directions being communicated.

The final thought for this article is the ISO's use of a written checklist. By utilizing a well-prepared safety checklist, the safety plan is easy to build and implement on the scene of an emergency. A checklist ensures that critical items are not overlooked when the going gets tough. Once again, our "flying friends" provide us with a great example to follow. The airline pilot uses a written and verbal checklist at every take off and landing. Why take unreasonable or avoidable chances with something as important as flying a plane or managing an emergency incident?

Remember that the proper utilization of an Incident Safety Officer (ISO) will have a significant impact on the effective, efficient and safe handling of your emergency response.

Consider that as times have changed so have the degree and quantities of risks, making our jobs that more dangerous. By selecting an ISO that is qualified for this role and supporting them in the discharge of their assigned duties we can better manage the risk factors that accompany us on every call.