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Seven Key Actions and Observations for Safety Officers

Considering the dynamics involved in today’s fireground environment, it is easy to understand how it can become overwhelming and even compromised. Challenges such as limited experience or staffing, violent fire conditions and building construction practices all contribute to the importance of having someone dedicated to looking out for our safety on the fireground.

No matter if that role is filled by a dedicated safety officer or division supervisor, the considerations in this role remain consistent. There are numerous considerations in this role. Seven of the most basic and important that are often forgotten are:

1. Command Briefing

It is imperative that a safety officer get a good understanding of the fireground upon their arrival (see Photo 1). Important questions that must be answered include:

  • Which companies are operating and where?
  • How long have they been operating?
  • How much progress have they made? 
  • How deep into the structure are companies? (A good rule of thumb is not to exceed 150-200 feet into an IDLH.)
  • What type of accountability system is in place?
  • Are command officers established in tactical positions as needed?

By no means should a safety officer take the Incident Commander’s focus away from the incident for a lengthy dissertation of what is taking place – most of the information needed can be easily obtained from a well-designed and properly filled-out tactical worksheet, if one is present. A quick glance and short verbal exchange of some important points is all that it should take before the Safety Officer has what they need.

2. Size-Up and Engagement Evaluation

The process of size-up should be continued throughout the incident by the Safety Officer. Size-up consists of getting a proper perspective (conditions, resources) of the situation and establishing the constant evaluation process – what does a 360 of the building reveal? (See Photo 2.) If you can’t get a look at all sides (including the roof and basement), do you have the ability to get someone to those positions to get you (and others on scene) the needed information? Know where the fire has been, where it is at, and where it is going (BAG). Incident size up plays a key part in completion of the risk-hazard analysis.

Every incident begins with the completion of a Risk-Hazard Analysis. This analysis needs to be completed on every incident prior to committing firefighters and should be based on the department’s risk/benefit policy mandated by NFPA 1500. First-arriving company officers that arrive prior to command personnel should be completing this assessment mentally on each call that they respond. This information serves as the foundation for all other decisions made on the fireground.

An Engagement Evaluation should be completed as a part of that analysis. The probability of success of an operation must be considered in relation to the degree of risk presented. Rescue profile, fire stage, savable property and danger level to firefighters are all categories that make up this evaluation. The Safety Officer needs to reevaluate this evaluation upon their establishment on scene.

The Safety Officer also needs to consider if there are adequate resources available for the situation at hand or if the alarm need to be upgraded. If this is the case, this information needs to be passed to the Incident Commander. Remember, it is easier to return someone if they are not needed rather than to not have them there and available. 

3. Fire Flow

Is an adequate water supply established to support the operations in place and is the initial line being backed up with an adequate line with the proper provisions in place to not be compromised if integrity of the initial line is (loss of water, pump issue, etc.)?

Fire flow is also a major part of the risk-hazard analysis. In very general terms, if the fire-flow capability of available resources exceeds the required fire flow, an offensive attack on the fire can usually be made, provided that the proper resources are available to support the operation and circumstances or conditions allow. If the fire flow requirements cannot be met, a defensive mode of operations is required. Fire flow should be determined by the National Fire Academy Formula (taking the length multiplied by the width of the building and dividing it by three will provide the requirement for one floor at 100% involvement; numbers should also be rounded to make the math simple). If multiple floors are involved (including attic spaces) this final number should be multiplied by that factor (number of floors) also. It is also recommended that one firefighter be on scene for every 50 gallons of water flowing to support operations. It is also important to remember that if the fire attack needs to be reinforced more than one time, serious consideration should be given to the strategy that is being undertaken (see Photo 3).

Again, these are not absolutes, but points that need to be considered. 

4. Smoke Behavior

The ability to understand the significance of smoke conditions on the fireground is essential. Interpreting smoke conditions can provide a degree of predictability as to what is going to take place on the fireground. With this predictability many dangerous situations can be prevented. It also helps in telling us where the fire is located and how much fire is present. The attributes of smoke provide us the clues to developments such as flashover, backdraft, smoke explosion and rapid fire spread.

Understanding the four basic attributes of smoke is important to all on the fireground. These attributes are volume, velocity, density and color. All must be taken in context to each other as well as in relation to the size of the building or area that is on fire.

  1. Volume is the first attribute. Volume indicates the amount of fuel that is being off gassed by the combustion process.
  2. Velocity refers to the speed or push behind the smoke inside the fire area. It is a key indicator to the amount of heat and pressure that have built up within the structure or fire area. Smoke velocity relates to basic principles of physics; heat is inversely proportional to pressure. As heat levels increase, pressure also increases until equilibrium is reached by cooling the environment. Smoke under high velocity or turbulence is indicative of very high temperatures therefore velocity is very useful in monitoring for flashover. An old method to locating the area of fire on the fireground using velocity is to look for the smallest opening exhibiting the fastest moving smoke – usually this opening will be the nearest to the fire.
  3. Density or the thickness of smoke indicates how much fuel is being burned off in the combustion process. The thicker that smoke is the more fuel that it contains. Rapid fire spread must be a consideration when smoke becomes increasingly thicker. As smoke cools and reaches equilibrium, the solid particulate and aerosols contained in it will bind to surfaces, decreasing the density of smoke as it travels. This process is known as “filtering” – the further away from the fire location, the less dense that the smoke should be.
  4. Colors of smoke have traditionally been taught to be indicative of specific materials that are burning. For the most part, this is next to impossible to determine on the fireground in the context of how many different chemicals and hydrocarbons that items in our environment are made of. Two colors that have very significant meaning on the fireground though are brown and yellow smoke. Brown smoke tells us that raw or unfinished wood products are burning; an indication that the fire has taken control of structural components. Yellow-tinged smoke is a late indicator of backdraft as it signifies the release of sulfur compounds in substances, which only takes place under extreme heat conditions.

Color can also indicate the duration of time that a fire has been burning, as well as location in regards to distance from the opening it is being seen. As materials burn, they first release moisture, which produces smoke that is lighter in color, as it progresses, and the moisture is burned off, the smoke eventually turns darker (see Photo 4). Color in smoke is also subject to filtering as previously mentioned with density. As smoke travels away from its point of origin, it should become lighter as the solid particulate and aerosols contained in it will bind to surfaces.

5. Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) 

Is the provision for a rapid deployment rescue team for the purpose of rescuing lost or trapped firefighters in place? NFPA and OSHA standards state that at least two members of the initial attack crew must be assigned this task (IRIT – Initial Rapid Intervention Team) until resources for a formalized team are on scene. It does not matter what rule, standard or regulation that we are trying to comply with – the bottom line is that firefighter safety must be the main objective. The RIT must be established as soon as possible and be made up of properly trained and equipped firefighters. In addition, they need to have the proper equipment ready based on the type of building that operations are taking place.

It should also be understood that a well-prepared fireground involving proactive behavior is very important. Minimum proactive behavior for the RIT should incorporate the use of ladders at secondary egress points around the building to provide for immediate access as well as escape. Lighting at every entry point that a fire company has penetrated should also be established. This will provide a point of orientation for a possible lost firefighter or crew. An additional hoseline for possible backup if conditions deteriorate at these entry points should also be put into place if needed. Removing all barriers (softening the structure), especially boarded or barred windows, chained gates, window gates, accordion gates and any exterior items that may block escape should be removed. This proactive action also allows for rapid egress at various points around the structure if needed.

Important to remember, however, is that a RIT should not dedicate itself to performing tasks that will make it unavailable for its main mission – responding to and aiding firefighters who need help. If a proactive task on the fireground will take the RIT away from this, make certain to get the task assigned to another company.

6. Structural Stability Checks 

Structural stability checks need to be completed consistently at different time intervals.

Gravitational forces are always at work to bring a building down. When fire takes possession of a portion of a building, changes begin to take place with the materials and components that provide the structure with its ability to stand. Most times, these changes are able to be detected before collapse occurs. The type of construction of the building that we are operating in has to be recognized early and the way that it will react must be understood. Many newer buildings contain some form of lightweight truss construction, which is susceptible to collapse from fire exposure in a very short amount of time (as little as 6-8 minutes from exposure). Is the building that we are in able to support the forces that are taking place as well as what we are applying? Excessive water flow with little or no runoff should indicate potential collapse conditions due to the increased weight load on the structure.

In the case of basement fires, collapse needs to be considered during initial operations, even in the cases of quick notification and response. Regardless of the flooring type, configuration, ventilation, fuel load or mechanical load, collapse can take place within 8 minutes of arrival. When possible, Safety Officers should make it a point to inspect the integrity of a floor system where firefighters are operating. 

7. Rehab

The importance of rehab cannot be stressed enough when it comes to firefighting. Rehabilitation resources should be requested as soon as possible. Even the smallest incidents should require a rehab to be set up for firefighters if they are working for any extended period of time. The rehab location should get firefighters out of the elements, be located away from vehicle exhaust and concentrate on providing hydration through fluids. When faced with environmental stress, the body can lose up to three liters of water per hour through sweating. Hydration becomes paramount and fluid replacement must take place or problems will occur. Water is the most important item that should be consumed for hydration. It is recommended that firefighters consume at least one quart of water per hour when working. 

Make certain that a rehab is established and that the proper resources are available to support it.

These seven considerations discussed are not the only ones that exist. There are many other items that must be considered when filling the role of the fireground Safety Officer. We must also realize that we are truly responsible for one another’s safety on the fireground, even if we are not filling the formal role. Today’s fire service operates and competes in a very volatile environment – both on and off the fireground. Are you ready for these challenges when it comes to our safety?

JEFFREY PINDELSKI CFO, a 24-year plus student of the fire service, is the deputy chief of operations with the Downers Grove, IL, Fire Department. He is a contributing editor and is the co-author of the text: R.I.C.O. – Rapid Intervention Company Operations, and is a revising author of the third edition of the Firefighter's Handbook. Pindelski has earned a masters degree from Lewis University and was a recipient of the State of Illinois Firefighting Medal of Valor in 1998.