Training Tips: Incident Safety Officer

By Billy Wenzel

As the responding Incident Safety Officer, I have luxury of being able to analytically study a structure that is under attack by fire. While instructing an incident safety officer class recently I was asked for specifics: What I look for and how do you determine if a fire is no longer controllable? I provided a brief response on building construction and volume and intensity of the fire, but in retrospect I had a hard time putting into words what exactly a safety officer should be looking for at a structure fire.

As I began giving this further thought, I soon realized that when I respond to an incident, I immediately categorize structure fires into two separate and distinctive categories, residential or commercial, each with a separate mind set and associated thought process: I know this is simplistic: There are residences that are multi-story, multi-square feet, humongous structures, just as there are the mom-and-pop commercial structures that could be extinguished with a garden hose, but generally there are vast differences in these two types.

The majority of our structure fires are residential fires, so we will start there. I cover a large area (response times could be up to 10 minutes), so I start my mental download of information from the traffic over the radio.

Dispatch – All company officer have access to this information. From the dispatch information you usually can tell from what type of structure you’re dealing with (response in a commercial area vs a residential area), if there’s a working fire (multiple calls), and any additional hazards (persons trapped).
On Scene Radio Traffic- The initial “on scene” siz-up is probably the most important: Initial radio traffic. It always sets the stage allowing the “on scene” officer a chance to gather his wits and verbally describe what he is seeing. It allows responding crews to develop a picture of the incident in their mind. As the scene progresses, the tactical assignments and the tone/demeanor of company officers begin to paint a picture for the incident safety officer. This radio traffic before arrival may establish your first objectives on arrival.

Recently we had a structure fire; fire attack was engaged in a typical basement fire. They reported heavy heat and repeatly requested more nozzle pressure. Ultimately, Fire Attack exited the structure because of a lack of nozzle pressure. On my arrival I went directly to the driver/operator to assist in identifying the problem, which we corrected. On this scene, the first safety issue was getting a satisfactory gpm to the fire attack team. The ability to identify and prioritize safety issues becomes the first step. Once that is accomplished, correct the first priority and move on to the next.

On Scene
Recon – Early into the incident, the safety officer needs to get a look and feel of the structure. Residences are generally easy to walk around I always make my way to the rear of the structure, looking for several things.

Construction type – Balloon frame, stick built, masonry — all types of construction have their inherent hazards. These hazards need to be identified early and watched throughout the incident.

Construction features – Crews meed to know additions to the original construction, such add-ons, basements, skylights, access/egress features or anything that would hinder the crews from exiting the structure. Most importantly, any feature that would hinder crews from exiting the structure or pose a risk need to be addressed.

Fire conditions – Fire location, smoke location, smoke color, smoke intensity, and smoke volume are all important indicators. Dave Dodson’s “Reading Smoke” is an excellent reference and learning tool for this forgotten art. Once you have made the initial mental notes of these indicators, continually watch for changes. I typically walk a 360, constantly watching for changing conditions, until the fire is determined to be under control.

The safety officer should be in a position to determine if the fire attack is effective. This begins to touch on the most effective part of the safety officer’s function. Updating the incident commander and all crews constantly, evaluating if the fight is being won or lost.

This begins to fall into that hard to explain area again: When the firefight becomes extended, when fire conditions do not improve or get worse, when one fireground problem leads to another problem and another, I start to get a bad feeling a feeling in my gut. In the past few years I have been glad to see many iconic fire service figures speak about this feeling. What they all say is listen to this feeling. When you get that bad feeling, act! If you wait it could be too late.

Fire ground tactics – This can be a touchy subject. When I first became an incident safety officer I asked the Battalion Chiefs what they expected from me. They all expressed they did not want me to run their fires, which was fine because I did not see that as my role.

The safey officer must report if the tactics are being successful; stop any unsafe tactics and report the stoppage to the IC; and monitor the used of protective clothing and the safe use of equipment. One of the added benefits is the ability to identify training needs. Whether it is at the company level or departmental level, repeated weakness indicate an opportunity for training. As the safety officer, I can verbalize and document that need.

Post-incident analysis – One of the best learning tools for all crews is the post-incident analysis. Before crews leave the scene, the Incident Commander should take a few minutes with the Company Officers to review the fire ground tactics. What were the incident priorities and why tactical assignments were made? Identify what was successful and what could have been improved. Initially crews are apprehensive attending post-incident critiques, generally because in the past they ended up being a finger-pointing exercise, but,if you hold an informative critique after every significant incident this apprehension will pass. Post-incident critiques also present a forum for the safety officer to introduce any safety concerns that were observed.

Adhering to the KISS principle (Keep it simple, stupid), the process described here is simplistic. It is the safety officer’s job to take all of this in and process it into useful and safe operations.

While the safety officers have the luxury to process all of this information, each company officer and firefighter must process safety concerns in their area of responsibility. The fire attack officer must continually process the fire conditions (are we winning the fight? has their been a change in fire or smoke conditions?). It cannot be overstated: This job is a team effort. We work in extremely hazardous conditions. To be successful we must be in good condition (mentally and physically), well trained, and committed to team safety. The safety officer is one component of that effort.

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