Safety Officer Tools

Many of us remember the TV show “Home Improvement,” and the image of Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, played by actor/comedian Tim Allen, digging through his assortment of wrenches, screwdrivers and hammers, all the while calling for “more power” in order to get his job done. So what’s in the incident safety officer’s (ISO’s) toolbox that provides them with “more power” to do their job? Although NFPA 1521: Standard for Fire Department Safety Officer outlines the basic tools for the job, there are other tools necessary for an ISO to be effective. Interestingly, they already have most of them.

Knowledge, Skills & Abilities
The ISO brings with them three items that they’ve acquired throughout their fire service career: knowledge, skills and abilities. A strong knowledge of building construction, fire behavior and fireground operations is an essential prerequisite of the job, but having reached the ISO level, the individual already has knowledge of what to look out for regarding unsafe acts and unsafe conditions. An effective ISO can translate their knowledge into the skills needed to effectively and safely manage a fireground operation.

Their abilities on the fireground have been tested on incidents throughout their response area, more than likely as a fireground officer tasked with victim rescue and fire extinguishment.

The knowledge that the ISO has gathered throughout their career will aid them most in carrying out their actions on the fireground. And although it’s important to have classroom knowledge, it’s the “street smarts” and skills that they’ve gathered from various emergencies that will make them a better ISO. D.W. Dodson notes in the second edition of his book, “Fire Department Incident Safety Officer,” that the effective ISO has the ability to read buildings, smoke, risk, hazardous energy and firefighters on every applicable emergency. But this ability can only be obtained through experience on emergency scenes.

An Extension of the IC
It’s important for the ISO to understand the dynamics that they’ll face every time they go to an emergency. The goal of the incident commander (IC) is to stop the emergency, safely, while the goal of the ISO is to make sure that everyone returns home safely after the emergency. These two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they’re conjoined and should serve as constant reminders to the ISO and the IC about how tactics should be carried out on the fireground.

Remember: The ISO doesn’t live in a vacuum; they’re an extension of the IC and their decisions. Their actions, or inaction, will have an impact on the tactical decisions made by the IC. As a result, the communication and planning between the IC and the ISO are critical to the safety and survival of all members on the fireground.

Ask for Help
One of the most useful tools available to the ISO is the ability to ask for help when needed, possibly in the form of assistant safety officers or technical safety officers, for those incidents that require specialized knowledge or an extra set of eyes.

Hazmat incidents, technical rescue operations or wildland fires will almost always require an assistant safety officer (ASO) who’s skilled in those areas and can work alongside the crews as they carry out their tasks. The ASO, in turn, communicates with the ISO to make sure the outlined tactical operations and tasks are conducted safely.

In addition, the size and/or complexity of the incident may require the ISO to assign an ASO to help look out for the members operating at the emergency.

The Power to Stop
One of the most powerful tools that an ISO has in their toolbox is the ability to immediately stop an incident in its tracks due to unsafe acts or unsafe conditions. That said, the seasoned ISO understands that this is an action of last resort. Proper communication with the IC and relaying of the information to the troops carrying out the firefighting plan should make this type of action rare at best.

The Newbie ISO
To those who’ve just become an ISO, welcome to the family! The new ISO must first educate themselves on the specific roles and responsibilities of the position. To help them build their knowledge on what’s needed to be an effective ISO, they should look for information about their new role from such groups as the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section, the Fire Department Safety Officers Association, their local and state fire academy, and other seasoned ISOs.

One of the hardest tasks for the new ISO will be to remember that it’s not their job to keep the structure from burning down; that’s the job of the IC. Their job is to make sure that if the structure burns down, it does so without harming any of the firefighters on scene. They must change their mindset so that they focus on preventing or stopping unsafe acts and unsafe conditions, and then make sure that any pertinent information is made available to the IC.

You’ve Got A “Power-full” Toolbox
Going into battle, the ancient warrior and philosopher Sun Tzu noted, “[I]f ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.” For an ISO to be successful in the heat of the battle, they must know what they’re combating and what resources are available to them to help carry out their jobs. They must also believe in their own knowledge, skills and abilities. “More power” is available to the ISO. All they have to do is look in their toolbox.

Dodson, DW. Fire department incident safety officer (second edition). Delmar: Clifton Park, N.Y. 2007.

Galvin, D. Sun Tzu: The art of war (L. Giles, Trans.). Fine Creative Media: N.Y. 2003.


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