Being an Effective Incident Safety Officer

The mission of an incident safety officer (ISO) is to prevent injuries to firefighters whenever possible. The most effective ISOs are those who have the right skill set above just being great firefighters or fire officers. They must combine the attributes of an expert; a salesperson; a diplomat; a missionary; a recon ranger; and, at times, an enforcer. If improving safety outcomes is the goal, then pursuit of methods to improve effectiveness must be included in the preparation of those designated as this important position. This means that establishing an ISO within the incident command system is done not only to “check the box” but also to truly influence the operation and prevent harm. Results are the true measure of success; using as many means as possible will allow an ISO to get to that goal.

There are experts in all walks of life. They are recognized for their knowledge above the general population as well as within their chosen field. Experts have a passion for the work they do. They attain professionalism through a combination of education, training, repetition, and experience. These pursuits never stop until the experts retire from the profession and, even then, they are still considered experts if they maintain their knowledge base and stay current. For an ISO, this means continual study, particularly with the five reads: reading buildings, smoke, firefighters, risk, and hazardous energy.

Reading Buildings

Understanding building construction is obviously a very important aspect of performing the functions of ISO. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the study of building construction is not a priority throughout many careers. Most fire service personnel receive an introduction during basic training and rarely continue that study. But for ISOs to be most effective when evaluating hazards, they must understand the methods and materials used to keep the building standing.

One challenge in this is the continual development of construction methods. As the building codes transitioned from prescriptive to performance, architects and engineers pursued alternative ways to be more efficient and effective (less costly) without considering the potential effects when the structure is under assault from fire. Through engineering, lighter weight materials can be used. With less mass comes less time during fire conditions as heat is absorbed more quickly. Those with the responsibility of keeping firefighters as safe as possible must continually monitor the construction industry to keep current in all the potential threats.

Another challenge is the materials that make up the contents. Building use gives clues as to what firefighters may find. This sometimes is contrasted as legacy materials vs. modern contents. Until relatively recent times, most of the contents within buildings were made of natural materials—wood, cotton, wool, and the like. In the modern world, it is harder to find contents that are not made of plastics and other manmade materials. There are a couple of dangers with this. Fires involving modern materials will burn faster and hotter while generating more smoke. The contents of the smoke are contributing factors in fire spread and also contain many carcinogens that are proving to increase the risk to firefighters for certain types of cancers. So, the ISOs must know the dangers and risks associated with the building construction types and also the hazards attributed to the contents.

Reading Smoke

Those who study this know that the smoke is telling firefighters what is happening and what is likely to happen. The attributes of smoke that have been so aptly explained by Dave Dodson and others are the volume, velocity, density, and color. Each is telling something about the fire. The volume is relative to the size of the building. The velocity is a product of the energy being produced, which is being generated by heat or pressure. Density is about the amount of smoke and, since smoke is fuel, the amount of what can burn. The color can tell you what is burning and other information. Continual study and practice will help you gain competence and improve your speed at making assessments.

Reading Firefighters

Reading firefighters is an extremely important part of the ISO’s job. Every firefighter should know that the two biggest risks to firefighters regarding health and potential line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) are cancer and cardiac-related issues. Watching firefighters work and assessing the need for rehab will go a long way toward minimizing risks to firefighters. ISOs must understand the importance of hydration, nutrition, rest, and decontamination. National Fire Protection Association 1584, Standard on the Rehabilitation Process for Members During Emergency Operations and Training Exercises, does not mandate that the ISO perform the rehab on the scene—only that it be performed. This requires a good understanding of what is trying to be accomplished. It also requires follow-up. As anyone who pays attention to LODDs should know, there are many cases where firefighters say that they don’t feel well after a fire and lie down to rest or go home from the job, only to succumb later. ISOs must make sure firefighters are properly checked medically.

Reading Risks, Reading Hazardous Energy

Reading risk and reading hazardous energy generally do not receive as much attention but are equally important. The risk aspect has as much to do with department policy and an organization’s culture. There must be quick assessments as to what realistically can be saved vs. the risks being taken. There are times where risks need to be taken, but there are other times that have nothing to do with saving anything.

For example, many departments are changing their approach to vehicle and dumpster fires. There is nothing to save, so firefighters must minimize their risks to exposure to toxic smoke.

Hazardous energy issues continue to be more complex, as more forms of energy are developed that create more hazards to consider. At one time, only gasoline was used to power vehicles. Now, there are many methods, including natural gas, propane, batteries, and hydrogen. Homes don’t just get their energy from the power company. There are solar panels and emergency generators.

Other Attributes

The attributes of a successful salesperson, diplomat, and missionary are very helpful to a successful ISO. Think for a minute what it takes to be a salesperson. You need to know your product. You need to be a zealot to some extent. Communication skills are very important. Since not all fire service personnel buy into the job of ISO, there is a need to sell the concept and job responsibilities.

Diplomats have tact. They are skilled in being able to discuss issues with others without putting them on the defensive and also are able to convince others of their viewpoints. Being diplomatic and tactful often are lost skills for firefighters, as they may not consider them important for the basic job of firefighting. But ISOs will definitely benefit from diplomacy.

Missionaries have a strong commitment to their mission and are able to continue their work even when they don’t get the response they want. They know it takes continual effort and a sincere belief that their work will make a difference. They know that some people will “slam the door” in their face, but they will maintain their poise and composure and move on to the next person. Their beliefs are so strong that they cannot be deterred.

Gathering intelligence—preemergency and during the emergency operation—is a valuable skill for ISOs. It involves more than supporting preincident plans. To remain competent, ISOs need continual study of current trends and developments. There is so much research taking place that it is challenging to stay current. But the ISOs who access information continually can further their cause by providing that information to the line personnel who will benefit. This also continues to support the credibility of the ISO and demonstrates sincerity to the mission. The ability to function as a recon ranger during an emergency is a huge advantage to the incident commander (IC) as well as the troops. The ISOs can place themselves in positions where they get a different perspective. They can then articulate this information, which can be vital to the IC’s making good decisions in establishing strategy and tactics.

Being in a position where you must enforce the rules is not usually a position that most people in the fire service desire. But there are instances where ISOs must be firm to protect the well-being of the firefighters and the department, It may mean taking a zero-tolerance stance when observing a failure to use seat belts or provide a spotter when backing an apparatus. It may mean forcing a firefighter into rehab against his desires or stopping an unsafe act that could lead to an immediate injury. These actions take courage, confidence, and a willingness to be subject to criticism. Being competent and respected in the organization will allow ISOs to, on occasion, take the position of enforcer.

ISOs need a variety of skills, knowledge, and abilities. They must have the ability to gain results that minimize risks to firefighters and promote health and wellness. Working with others and gaining their support are critical to success in the role. Much can be done to improve effectiveness and obtain the desired results.


RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

Richard Marinucci will present “FDSOA Incident Safety Officer Academy” as a two-day preconference workshop at FDIC International 2019 in Indianapolis on Monday, April 8, 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., and Tuesday, April 9, 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.


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