Company Officer Leadership: By the Way, You`re the Safety Officer

A large portion of fire departments has a designated safety officer that coordinates the safety and risk management of the department. Additionally, thanks to NFPA 1500, OSHA, and various state statures, as well as just good practice, the deployment of a safety officer at fire events occurs.

However, as we examine the role of the health and safety officer and the incident safety officer, this person, no matter their level of training and experience, can only be in one place at a time. Often at fire events, this person is stationed outside of the building rather than inside of the building where the majority of catastrophic events occur on the fireground.

These facts make the role of the company officer related to health and safety imperative to the safety of their crews.

The Interior Safety Officer

Because fire department staffing models do not have the luxury of attaching a safety officer to each of the fire companies operating at a fire, the company officer must serve in this role. To be an effective interior safety officer, you must understand a wide variety of issues, but mainly, you need to understand fire behavior and building construction.

Both of these two primary elements directly affect one and other. Fire behavior and fire dynamics teachings have changed drastically thanks to the efforts of NIST and UL. As a company officer, you must read, understand and apply these new teachings.

Although we have noted changes to fire behavior and tactics in past generations, the newest changes are not based on an idea, but science. This is important, as the laws of science exist in every department.

The second primary element the company officer must know is building construction, specifically, the construction in your fire district. Firefighters in urban areas that were constructed in the early 1900s can expect a completely different fire event that a fire officer in the suburbs built in the 1990s. Understanding how the buildings react under fire conditions, specifically, the times related with the reactions proves crucial to ensuring the safety of the crew.

One of the best ways I have learned this element is to follow the fire investigator around after the fire and understand how they trace a fire to its origin, which involves seeing the fire in reverse. This shows you how the fire traveled and interacted with the building components.

Additionally, read the NIOSH reports completed after a firefighter's death or the near miss reports. Do not let a fire fatality or near miss go unlearned. Teach those you lead so that everyone is looking to prevent an accident.

The Station Safety Officer

Your organization's health and safety officer likely conducts risk assessments and produces policies to combat the risks, but it is unlikely that he or she spends the day in your firehouse. Thus, it is up to the company officer to enforce safety policies and become observant (risk assessment) of hazards not currently covered by policy or training.

Some of the simple tasks involved in day-to-day safety include proper lifting techniques, ensuring areas of the station do not present trip and fall hazards, and ensuring station equipment is maintained in a safe working condition.

The Secret Killer

Beyond these simple tasks of station safety, the company officer should be involved in understanding cancer related to the firefighter.

The Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) is the first and only firefighter cancer support group; Mike Jaffa, one of the FCSN directors for New Mexico, provided the following information:

Firefighter cancer is a looming personal catastrophe for each and every firefighter. Cancer is the most dangerous and unrecognized threat to the health and safety of our nation's firefighters.

Multiple studies, including the NIOSH cancer study, have repeatedly demonstrated credible evidence and biologic creditability for statistically higher rates of multiple types of cancers in firefighters compared to the general American population including:

  • Testicular cancer (2.02 times greater risk)
  • Multiple myeloma (1.53 times greater risk)
  • Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (1.51 times greater risk)
  • Skin cancer (1.39 times greater risk)
  • Prostate cancer (1.28 times greater risk)
  • Malignant melanoma (1.31 times great risk)
  • Brain cancer (1.31 times greater risk)
  • Colon cancer (1.21 times great risk)
  • Leukemia (1.14 times greater risk)
  • Breast cancer in women

Some of the exposure may never find remediation; however, it is known that simple tasks such as wearing your SCBA even during overhaul and immediately showering after a fire can prevent toxins entering your body. It is our job to see that our personnel can enjoy their lives during their time in the fire department and hopefully many years after their retirement.

While our titles do not include the words safety officer, the company officer must understand their knowledge, actions, and interactions with their personnel make a huge contribution to the overall safety of their members. Take the correct action related to safety so your personnel can have a safe shift and an enjoyable life outside of the fire station.

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