Every fireground leader must be a ‘safety officer’

Robert Avsec

Nobody can, or should, have more positive influence over the behaviors of a firefighter on the emergency scene than his tactical leader.

Whether that leader is the firefighter's direct supervisor or an officer assigned ad hoc on the emergency scene, she is responsible for providing clear guidance and direction to the firefighters to ensure that tactical operations are done safely, effectively and efficiently.

A company officer is responsible for understanding the basic incident command system (ICS) structure that is used to manage roughly 75 to 85 percent of the incidents. Those ICS components that enable us to do that include these three elements: incident commander, safety officer and tactical leaders (crew leaders and division/group supervisors).

A company officer needs to be capable of being the incident commander — for single-company responses or those that require only a small number of resources — as well as serving in a role subordinate to the commander.

The incident commander must be able to conduct the incident size up, develop an incident action plan, communicate that plan to tactical leaders, and respond to feedback from those leaders and make adjustments to the plan as necessary.

A tactical leader must be able to size-up the conditions in her area of operation, communicate the findings to the incident commander, and implement assigned tactical objectives.

Understanding safety
She also must be able to quickly recognize changing conditions that present danger or will impede completion of the tactical objectives.

Every tactical leader must be the safety officer in his assigned area and for the people under his supervision.

That leader is responsible for determining the level of personal protective gear that's appropriate for the hazards. And the leader must ensure that personnel are properly wearing all required personal protective gear and following your department's SOGs and for all work they are conducting.

Every officer in the organization should have the abilities to function as the incident safety officer.

In order to do that, they must be able to quickly learn and understand the incident action plan, quickly conduct a thorough safety assessment of the scene to identify potential safety risks, and make recommendations to the incident commander on how those risks can be best managed.

Who does what
Your most frequent assignment on the incident is likely going to be that of a crew leader or a division/group supervisor; or, you may be the incident commander making these assignments. You must understand the duties and responsibilities for each of these tactical leadership roles.

A crew leader is the tactical leader for a group of three to five firefighters tasked with accomplishing one or more tactical objectives such as advancing a hose line to the second floor for fire suppression or setting up a master stream device to protect an exterior exposure.

The radio designation for a crew should be the officer's unit number, such as Engine 6 crew, or in the case of an ad hoc crew, the name of the crew leader — Crew Jones.

A division supervisor is the leader who must accomplish one or more of the tactical objectives. For example, the Division 2 supervisor at a structural fire would be responsible for any tactical operations required on the second floor of the involved structure. This could include search and removal of victims, fire suppression, forcible entry, etc.

A group supervisor must accomplish one or more of the tactical objectives across the incident scene. For example, the ventilation group supervisor is responsible for providing for the ventilation needs on both floors of a two-story structure fire. The treatment group supervisor at a multiple-casualty incident is responsible for ensuring that patient care and preparation for transport was proceeding safely, effectively, and efficiently.

Train safety early
Early in their training, firefighters must be imprinted with the concept of the buddy system. Firefighters should always work as a team of at least two.

I've worked in several entry-level firefighter training programs, and managed one, where firefighters even went to the restroom from the training ground with their buddy — using the facilities was optional, but being outside waiting for your buddy was not.

We teach firefighters what's important by what we demand in their early training and in every training exercise down the road in their career.

The company officer must be unyielding when it comes to firefighter accountability behaviors while on the scene. Firefighters must be taught these behaviors early in their training and they must be reinforced on every incident to underscore their importance.

Three important questions
Every emergency responder on the emergency scene should always have the answers for the following three questions of accountability.

  • What's your task? (I'm assigned to Engine 6 crew and we're conducting fire suppression with a 1 ¾-inch attack line.)
  • Where are you supposed to be operating? (Floor two of the structure in the room of fire origin.)
  • Who's your incident commander? (The Engine 6 crew leader, Lt. Edwards.)

Firefighters who know the answers to these three questions are not freelancing.

The company officer can find herself filling any number of roles under the operations section at an emergency incident. These points should serve as a refresher for the company officer and provide the framework for teaching firefighters what the company officer is expected to do on the emergency scene.

Creating realistic expectations — regarding your actions and theirs — on the part of your firefighters is the first step to ensuring that everyone can meet those expectations.

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