Big Brother Not Always Right
By Battalion Chief Rob McLeod
Is it just me, or do you also get the feeling that we sometimes bow down to every idea that comes out of the large metropolitan departments? I see many small or medium-sized fire departments taking in every thought, idea and program espoused by the "big brother" metros.
After all, they have the big budgets, the R&D and higher education that means anything they say must be the best way to do any task at hand.
Our department is very fortunate to have assistance from a very large southwestern desert metropolitan department. They are very generous with training, sharing research and a wealth of resources that we could never amass in our community of 250,000 or our 225 person organization.
But occasionally, just every so often, big brother comes up with an idea that seems to be cutting edge and yet, when we dissect it, the sacrifices to implement the change just aren't worth the advantages of making personnel management easier.
'Embedded' safety officers
Case in point: Within the last year, there has been a huge emphasis in our region, even presented at national training conferences, to move away from some aspects of our incident command structure, i.e. doing away with the incident/scene safety officer. The concept is that we use "embedded" safety officers and chief officers in each sector/group on the fireground.
Great idea, right? I mean, who doesn't think more personnel on scene focusing on accountability, safety and operations isn't a great idea? I agree with them wholeheartedly, especially on large-scale incidents with multiple stories or the big box facilities. These incidents have always challenged us as safety officers to try and be everywhere at once. So, in an effort to meet these demands, we moved to assistant safety officers.
So what is the concern? We have spent years training our personnel to grasp the concepts of scene safety — to embrace the fact that safety officers are an integral part of the command structure and do enhance overall safety at incidents by being the eyes and ears of the incident commander. But now someone has decided that we should just cut the position out.
Thinking that one person in a command vehicle is going to be able to see and put all the safety cues together to make the incident safer is going backward.
The problem is that in most organizations, big or small, we don't take the time to truly train our safety officers. We don't give them the tools to be successful and know their unique role and responsibilities on the emergency scenes.
If we were seeing that every single department across the country was having the same problem with managing safety officers on the fireground, I would be the first to say let's make it right.
The truth is that hundreds of departments take the time to train, equip and embrace the safety officer position as part of the package that helps reduce death and injury.
Those departments don't struggle with freelancing safety officers, they don't experience fireground in-fighting because a safety officer is making strategic and tactical decisions that should be the incident commander's job. Those issues are not a problem if you train safety officers on their unique role within the command structure.
If all you are doing is filling a box on the tactical worksheet with the first warm body wearing an officer helmet, then you are setting yourself up for conflict. The training is out there, both basic and advanced, from sources such as the National Fire Academy and the FDSOA's ISO Academy, in addition to the various regional advanced safety officer courses that are available.
So, while we are blessed with enormous resources and a great automatic aid response system that allows us to place chief officers and their aides/drivers in forward positions, we are being remiss to take away the one position that gives the incident commander an overall view of the fire scene safety concerns.
We are wrong if we ever change our operations for the sake of ease at the cost of Firefighter safety.
Rob McLeod is battalion chief over safety for Chandler Fire Dept. in Arizona. He is a fourth generation firefighter with more 30 years of career firefighting experience in Florida and Arizona. Rob is currently a western director for the FDSOA.
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