The Training Safety Officer Program: A Risk-Reduction Strategy

In 2012, the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC), an organization supporting local government through education, analysis, cooperative risk management, and advocacy, introduced the Training Safety Officer (TSO) program, a revolutionary concept to reduce injuries that occur during fire department training exercises.

The TSO program, introduced to law enforcement agencies in 2011, has been a widespread success in reducing the rate and number of injuries occurring to police officers while training. In 2012, several Minnesota fire departments began adopting the TSO concept for their training. The TSO program is designed to increase focus and awareness in reducing risk and subsequent injuries during training. Fire departments can reduce risk through a collaborative effort between the safety and training staff. By identifying risks and hazards early in the training planning phase, assigning preventive measures, and monitoring activities, we can significantly reduce the injury potential to participants.

Injury Statistics and Finances

Firefighter injuries during training have remained relatively constant over the past decade. These injuries occur in a controlled atmosphere where risk is minimized and hazards are reduced. Despite this control, we continue to injure firefighters during training on a relatively constant basis. The National Fire Protection Association reports that 69,400 injuries to firefighters were reported in 2012, down from 80,800 in 2002. Of these injuries, 7,140 occurred during training. Locally, the LMC reports that lost-time injuries totaled 787 workers’ compensation claims between 2002 and 2012. Of the claims made in the state of Minnesota, 12 percent occurred during training. The reported number of injuries at the national and local levels is generally considered to be underreported because of cultural and peer restraints as well as confusion and ambiguity surrounding workers’ compensation policy.

The majority of injuries that occur during training activities are often minor such as strains, sprains, and muscular pains. Although they may appear inconsequential, a significant number of debilitating or even career-ending injuries result in direct and indirect “cost” to the employees, their families, and the organization.

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, medical costs associated with lost-time injuries are estimated to be between $2 and $7 billion per year. In Minnesota, the LMC reported that 16 percent of workers’ compensation claims between 2007 and 2010 were attributable to the fire service. These Minnesota compensation claims totaled $11,750,560.

Historically, the role of the safety officer in the American fire service has been predominantly isolated or concerned with risk management on the incident scene. Using a person specifically charged with risk reduction associated with fire service training has been sporadic at best. Although many departments consider safety as part of the instructional process, they do not specifically assign an individual the role of safety officer during training activities-with the notable exception of live fire training.

Four Functional Areas

The TSO concept is a true partnership between the safety officer and the instructional staff. Their interaction and cooperation are instrumental in realizing a zero injury goal for each training session. Four functional areas serve as the foundation for the TSO program: preparation, safety plan development, the training session, and postanalysis. Several planning steps build on this foundation, which ensures a thorough examination of the training with an eye toward safety, risk reduction, and hazard mitigation. The planning steps follow.

First, understand the training session you will deliver. Effective communication between the TSO and the instructor is paramount. The instructor’s lesson plan must specifically describe the desired outcomes and expectations of the training session. He must make clear the specific actions and the role of the instructional staff to achieve these goals and objectives, the logistics to satisfy training needs, and the anticipated safety requirements.

Second, review similar training sessions for “lessons learned,” and incorporate any changes you may make into the planning phase. This includes contingencies for unforeseen circumstances such as last-minute changes in training methodology, inclement weather, available medical care, and emergency stop training communications.

Last, review and agree on the roles and responsibilities of the instructor cadre and students. When applicable, visit the training site to forecast problems and identify hazards to apply preventive efforts. Then, develop a safety plan for the training session. This integral step involves a systematic, focused examination of the training session by the TSO and the lead instructor. The safety plan evaluates the training as being several “moving parts” whose sum meets the session objectives. These moving parts or individual actions are assessed for specific risks and hazards associated with the action.

For example, if the training topic is ground ladders, then one of the action areas is probably climbing a ladder. Here, you might identify a proper climbing technique when carrying a hand tool as a fall hazard (risk), and then include in your safety briefing a review of safe climbing techniques (risk/hazard mitigation). This concept of breaking the training or task into individual parts is a common risk management approach in general industry.

A job safety analysis (JSA) is one example of a risk assessment tool used to identify and control workplace hazards. For example, if you are using a chain saw to cut wood, the JSA process identifies the various risks (i.e., saw kickback, flying debris, slippery surface) associated with a task (cutting wood with a chain saw). Then, it identifies a risk-reduction “control” for the hazard. In this example, the JSA calls out control measures such as personal protective equipment (PPE) or moving the object to a nonslip surface. The JSA requires a closer examination of the task, identifies hazards, and then assigns risk-reduction measures. Since you cannot eliminate all risk, the JSA controls hazards to acceptable levels.

By identifying risks and hazards early in the training planning phase, assigning preventive measures, and monitoring activities, we can significantly reduce the injury potential for participants.
By identifying risks and hazards early in the training planning phase, assigning preventive measures, and monitoring activities, we can significantly reduce the injury potential for participants.

A written safety plan documents the findings of the planning session and accompanies the instructional outline for the training session. Each training topic receives the same safety review and documentation. Specific forms are used to document the safety planning, which systematically leads the evaluators through a safety assessment of the training session, matching actions with associated risk. These forms note and communicate the precautions to the training group. One result of this planning effort is a “Risk Matrix” chart (Table 1), which analyzes the probable risks evaluated regarding probability of occurrence and severity of consequence. Each chart assigns a color code that correlates to the relative risk, providing a quick visual queue for the potential of injury.

A safety plan serves similar future trainings. A training safety file emerges as you evaluate more training sessions. This file is useful in similar future trainings. If an injury occurs, the safety form outlines the preventive steps taken. If you are questioned, the documents will provide information for a comprehensive investigation.

Next, brief the session participants before they meet with the instructors to review the safety plan. The instructors will then share their training goals and objectives with the participants. Using the ground ladder example, let’s say the instructor expects all participants to climb the ladder while carrying a hand tool. The safety briefing would review proper climbing techniques; the type of PPE to be worn; and other hazards such as overhead obstructions, anchoring the ladder base, and so on. To reduce off-script behavior (unwanted actions not related to the training activity), the lead instructor must then review participants’ expected behavior at the conclusion of the briefing.

The TSO must actively monitor the training session. This on-site function is vital for high-risk activities such as roof ventilation, firefighter survival, and live fire sessions. During this phase, the TSO must remain highly visible to training participants; this includes wearing a reflective vest to increase his visibility.

The instructor and TSO share the role of safety oversight as well as the responsibility of maintaining a safe work environment; they also have the authority to stop or modify actions and activities. The TSO offers the advantage of a second set of senses to maintain a high level of situational awareness with a focus on safety. The TSO should not be involved in delivering the training; he should be solely dedicated to the ongoing evaluation of hazard control, anticipating future risk, and actively monitoring the safety of all involved.

The instructional staff should hold a postanalysis meeting to ensure that the risk reduction process is completed. During this time, lessons learned are noted and incidents documented. Apply these postanalysis learnings to future sessions.

Reducing Injuries

Reducing injuries during training activities is the principal goal of all involved. The TSO program accomplishes this goal by thoroughly analyzing the training curriculum, identifying hazards and risks associated with the training activity, implementing risk reduction/management “tools,” communicating the safety plan to the instructors and participants, and monitoring the training session.

The results of incorporating a TSO program have been encouraging. The Plymouth (MN) Fire Department (PFD) has shown a marked decrease in the number of injuries it sustains in its training. In 2012, 50 percent of its reported injuries occurred during training activities. In 2013, the PFD experienced a five-percent decrease in training injuries. In 2014, the PFD did not have any injuries associated with training activities.

The Centennial (MN) Fire District had similar results after incorporating the TSO program into its fire training cycle, drastically reducing its number of training injuries. The International Chiefs of Police also reported a decrease in officer injuries after presenting “safety lectures” before training activities.

To “play like we practice” requires training that closely mimics actual field conditions. This scenario-based, realistic training model offers distinct advantages over chalkboard or video discussion. The inherent risk to our responders is increased when we add realism and stress to the training environment. However, this risk can be controlled. The TSO accomplishes this with a focused approach to managing risk on the training ground.


National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 2013. U.S. Firefighter Injuries – 2012. Quincy, MA. Karter, M.

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) 2005. The Economic Consequences of Firefighter Injuries and Their Prevention: Final Report (NIST-GCR-05-874). TriData Corporation. United States.

RICHARD C. KLINE, MS, EFO, CFO, is a 39-year fire service veteran and a former chief of the Plymouth (MN) Fire Department, where he served in that position for 23 years before retiring in December 2015. He is a frequent regional and national speaker, presenting on topics relating to command competencies and firefighter safety and health.

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