One of Many Hats
By Dave Murphy
If you're the department safety officer, how accurate is your current job description?
It most likely contains a generic phrase that reads "responds to fires and other emergencies … surveys the incident scene for unsafe conditions and acts accordingly …"
In reality, does it even begin to cover what you do? Don't you wish your life was that simple? would venture to say it does not even come close to what occurs on a "normal" day.
An effective safety officer wears many hats; he or she must be multi-faceted and encompass a multitude of applicable skills in order to navigate the myriad of complex situations encountered in the modern fire service.
Let's examine a few of them, in no particular order of importance:
Leader: One should always lead by example. Your actions should be a guide for others to follow. Remember, others are always watching to see if you follow the prescribed safety guidelines. This is perhaps the most important element of true leadership.
Teacher: Every good firefighter is a good teacher. This is especially true when it comes to positive traits of efficient safety officers. Instead of berating someone, we should intervene and strive to teach them the correct and safe way of doing things. Listen to them, answer their questions — proactive safety will prosper as a result of the effort.
Lawyer: Any effective administrator must have a working knowledge of department SOPs and local, state and federal laws. This is an absolute must; by doing so, you will be able to refute many untruths and/or misconceptions that often surface and proliferate in the firehouse.
Social worker: As one who supports safety, you most likely are an advocate of training and education. Are you viewed as the "answer guy," and routinely sought out in technical matters related to safety? Are you the researcher, the one with the facts? I would imagine that you are in the forefront of proactive education within your department.
Scribe: "If it is not written, it did not happen." Did you learn this the hard way? Documentation is everything — the devil is in the details. While time consuming, it is essential, especially in this era of abundant grant opportunities. Good data will provide an immediate snapshot of the past and present, and point to what can be expected in the future.
Enforcer: While no one should strive to be the "safety cop," it is your duty to stop an unsafe act when it is encountered. However, you must be prepared to show them the right way in an acceptable manner. Remember, focus on the problem, not the person.
Fortune teller: What's next? New technology creates new hazards to firefighters. The fire service has always been reactive, and this must change. We know what is going to hurt us, yet we keep on making the same mistakes. By staying abreast of new innovations, an effective safety officer will stay ahead of the curve.
Administrator: Do you run the entire safety show? If so, it's a heavy load is it not? Why not share the work — delegate — and teach others along the way. Remember, you're not doing your job if you're not preparing someone to take your place.
Evangelist: Are you the safety advocate for your department? Do you "preach" safety on and off the job? Do you get out of the office and sell safety? If not, members will usually only knock upon your door after an accident has occurred. Get out, get to know them, listen and learn; when fully armed with their recommendations, fix it!
Psychiatrist: As a rule, firefighters are not very quick to openly discuss personal problems. We all carry a heavy load at times. Do others respect you and ask you for advice about personal problems as well as on the job concerns? Do you have/maintain a relationship where this may occur? Do you know when to intervene and where to send them?
Can you think of any "hats" I have missed? I am sure there are several. As you go about your day, be confident that you are making a difference. Your reward is seeing the troops go home at the end of each shift or incident.
Stay the course, take small steps and keep moving. Continue to widen your circle; your diligence may be the glue that holds it all together. And remember, as essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm."
Dave Murphy retired as assistant chief of the Richmond, Ky., Fire Department and is currently an assistant professor in the fire safety engineering technology program located at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Dave is the eastern director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association and also serves as the health and safety officer for the Harrisburg, N.C., Fire Department.