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Fire IQ: January 2011

In the inherently risky business of fire fighting, we must commit to taking every step possible to ensure the safety and survival of our members.

January 5, 2011 
By Peter Hunt

In the inherently risky business of fire fighting, we must commit to taking every step possible to ensure the safety and survival of our members.

A comprehensive incident scene management system, incorporating command, communications, accountability, a manageable span of control and a commitment from every firefighter to observe safe work practices, would not be complete without the presence of a strong incident safety officer (ISO).

Even the most experienced firefighters often overlook critical safety issues in their efforts to carry out their tactical priorities of rescue, fire control and property conservation.

Although I've had the privilege of working with dedicated, full-time safety officers in my department for many years, I will never forget the day that several firefighters’ lives were saved, and the importance of the ISO was forever cemented in my mind.


I was among several crews working to extinguish a well-involved four-alarm fire in an almost 100-year-old, three-storey, residential-over-commercial structure in Ottawa’s downtown core.

Aggressive interior operations by first-due companies could not gain control of the fire, and command made the decision to withdraw from the building and take up defensive positions in the street. Crews quickly focused on establishing 2.5-inch hand lines, master streams and aerial water towers to carry out extinguishment and protect exposure units.

While we took up our positions in the limited space available on the surrounding city streets, our ISO informed command that he had observed significant evidence of imminent structural collapse, that a collapse zone should be established and that crews and hose lines would be required to reposition.

In typical firefighting fashion, there was resistance to the plan, as companies believed they'd have a handle on the fire if they could hold their positions for just a few more minutes. But the ISO was adamant, command agreed, and the collapse zone was established.

Within minutes of withdrawing companies, the entire brick load-bearing wall on side 2 of the building collapsed into the street.

There is no doubt in my mind that command decisions motivated by the ISO saved lives that day. Thankfully, most fire department operations are much more routine in nature, as is the role of the ISO.

Sadly, some departments have experienced serious injuries and even line-of-duty deaths at operations where it has subsequently been suggested that the presence of an ISO may have reduced or eliminated the risks to their members. Some jurisdictions have the luxury of assigning full-time ISOs to working fires and other incidents that may represent a risk to their firefighters. Many more, however, due to their size or because of budgetary restraints, are not so fortunate.

If your department has full-time ISOs, are they being used to their fullest potential, and are they empowered to influence command decisions?

If you don't have full-time ISOs, are you training firefighters and assigning them to this role early in your operations as fire attack, search and vent teams are assembled?

Rather than bore you with excerpts from NFPA 1521 (the standard on fire department incident safety officer), here is a condensed review of the key roles of the incident safety officer from the Ottawa Fire Department’s SOP:

  • Liaise with command and understand his/her strategic and tactical priorities.
  • Report to accountability and don all PPE (and ISO identification) required to operate in the hot zone.
  • Conduct a thorough scene survey, assess all risks and safety concerns, identify hazards, unsafe conditions and operations and report them to command.
  • Immediately alter or terminate any unsafe activities involving an imminent hazard at an emergency incident and then notify command.
  • Establish hazard control zones and ensure that all members are aware of them.
  • Ensure that a comprehensive personnel accountability and entry control system is established and maintained throughout the incident.
  • Prompt command to establish a rapid intervention team and rehab, as well as additional ISOs if required by the size or complexity of the incident.
  • Monitor/evaluate smoke and fire conditions and advise command of the potential for flashover, backdraft, collapse or extension of fire.
  • Monitor access and egress routes to and from the structure and their impact on members and the operation.
  • Determine if apparatus placement or traffic flow presents a risk to members.
  • Attend post-incident analyses and prepare a written report for command and senior fire department officials.
  • Assist members who have experienced a workplace accident or injury, have a known or suspected exposure to a communicable disease, demonstrate signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, or require critical incident stress debriefings.
  • Respond to apparatus accidents to assist with investigation and reporting.

Clearly, the ISO is a critical position that plays a potentially life-saving role within the incident scene management process.

Regardless of the size of your department, it is incumbent upon the fire chief to take all steps necessary to ensure that a culture of safety and survival exists – one that refuses to accept cavalier attitudes, freelancing or unsafe practices. Every member needs to understand the importance of complying with all department policies and procedures, and the role of ISO needs to be established and trained on. The ISO also needs to be empowered to work closely with command to ensure the safety of our members.

Peter Hunt, a 29-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain in the Ottawa Fire Department’s suppression division. He can be reached at

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