Why fire safety officers need education, training

It's easy to be lopsided in the training–education balance, here's that balance is critical

Reducing firefighter deaths and injuries from preventable causes started became a focal point for the fire service in the 1980s. NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program was the landmark standard that brought firefighter safety and health issues to the forefront.

First adopted by NFPA in 1987, the standard provided the first roadmap for fire departments to use in taking a consistent and systematic approach to managing firefighter safety risk.

The adoption of NFPA 1500 was accompanied by NFPA's adoption of NFPA 1521: Standard for Fire Department Safety Officer Professional Qualifications. This standard identified the minimum job performance requirements necessary to perform the duties as a fire department health and safety officer and a fire department incident safety officer.

Image: FEMA

Image: FEMA

Why is it advantageous for an individual to become certified under these national standards?

First and foremost, it provides recognition that an individual has demonstrated proficiency and an ability to do the job in accordance with nationally recognized peer-developed standards. This is a key element in any profession's quest to increase its level of professionalism.

In addition, it provides for a common yardstick and a level playing field for all fire service personnel regardless of their status as a career or volunteer or the size of their department.

Certification as a health and safety officer creates a sense of achievement recognized by one's peers and one that will be honored wherever an individual goes in the fire service. In addition, the credibility of an individual's fire service organization is enhanced by having members certified to national consensus standards.

Health and safety officer training

The basis for becoming a competent health and safety officer, as well as a competent incident safety officer, is to develop a complete working knowledge of both NFPA 1500 and NFPA 1521.

This goes beyond the requirements of certification classes that are available for those standards. It requires a personal commitment to learn those standards from top to bottom and to consistently read and refresh one's grasp of the information contained in those two documents.

The Incident Safety Officer course, developed by the USFA and the National Fire Academy, is a two-day course that examines the safety officer's role at emergency responses. The specific focus on operations within an Incident Command System as a safety officer is a main theme. The course emphasizes the safe response to all-hazard types of situations.

The Health and Safety Officer course, also developed by the USFA and NFA, is a two-day course that examines the officer's role in identifying, evaluating and implementing policy and procedures that affect health and safety aspects for emergency responders. Risk analysis, wellness and other occupational safety issues are some of key topics emphasized in the course.

Both of the courses are presented during the NFA's direct delivery program, during the NFA's State Weekend Program, and by individual state training programs.

The Fire Department Safety Officers Association offers on-line courses for both safety officers that can lead to NFPA Pro Board certification upon successful completion. Other sources for training can include state fire training organizations and local community colleges.

Formal education

Another important development for enhancing the professionalism within the fire service has been the addition of formal education beyond high school. That can include undergraduate and graduate degrees in fields pertinent to fire and emergency services. USFA created the National Professional Development Model to provide professional development guidance for fire service personnel.

The model emphasizes the important contributions that both training and education provide in firefighter's professional development. The safety officer courses are good examples of the training component depicted on the right side of the triangle.

Equally important is the education component of professional development, that is, formal education beyond high school.

Working with coordinators of two- and four-year academic fire and Emergency Medical Services management degree programs, USFA established the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education network of emergency services-related education and training providers.

This network's mission is to, "Establish an organization of post-secondary institutions to promote higher education and to enhance the recognition of the fire and emergency services as a profession to reduce loss of life and property from fire and other hazards."

Where does formal education fit with being a more professional health and safety officer? Consider just one of the job requirements for the officer, addressing risk management for their department as stated in NFPA 1521.

"Develop an organizational risk management plan that addresses the risks specified in Chapter 4 of NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, given injury reports, vehicle incident reports, near-miss or equipment malfunction or failure reports, and other reports as determined the AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction), so that risks are identified, categorized, and control measures are implemented and monitored (Section 4.2 Risk Management)."

Quite a mouthful, right? Now consider just some of the knowledge, skills, and abilities that the officer will need to accomplish that and many other tasks.

  • Risk management principles and practices.
  • Technical writing.
  • Data collection and analysis.
  • Project management.
  • Interpersonal dynamics and communication.

In 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled, "I was a 'College Boy' Fire Officer and Damn Proud of it!" In that post, I listed four reasons for a firefighter to pursue a formal education.

  • To commit to a higher purpose, particularly if you're working full-time while completing classes.
  • To develop time-management and planning skills. 
  • To develop written communication skills.
  • To develop research skills and methodology beyond internet searches.

Can you see how earning an undergraduate, and even further, a graduate degree, in a pertinent fire and emergency services degree program would be beneficial to a health and safety officer?

Training, education both necessary

For most of its history, the U.S. fire service training has provided the foundation for firefighter professional development. With fire suppression and rescue activity constituting the vast majority of responses by departments large and small, the fire service was the quintessential blue-collar job.

The emphasis was on developing the knowledge, skills and abilities to accomplish the physical tasks of handling hoses, managing fire streams, conducting search and rescue operations, using hand tools and power equipment, and operating motorized fire apparatus.

Somewhere along the middle of the 20th century, the fire service began taking on other duties and responsibilities that began an expansion of the required body of knowledge that continues today.

First, came fire inspections and fire prevention education for the public. Then came response to incidents involving hazardous materials, which was closely followed by fire departments providing EMS to their communities. In recent years, the addition of technical rescue and emergency management have further expanded the scope of operations for many departments.

As the scope of operations has expanded, so too has the body of knowledge required to effectively manage incidents across those different disciplines. The need also arose for professional managers who could not only manage emergency incidents, but also the various programs and resources that were needed to meet those incident needs.

The health and safety officer is one such position in a fire department. For these officers to be successful in doing their job, they must develop a broad range of knowledge, skills and abilities that can only be obtained through both training and education.

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