An effective safety officer wears many hats or helmets; he or she must be multi-faceted and encompass a multitude of applicable skills in order to navigate the myriad of complex situations that are commonly encountered in the daily operations of the modern fire service. Let’s examine a few of them in no particular order of importance.
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. Talk the talk and walk the walk. This is perhaps the most important element of true leadership.
Every good firefighter is a good teacher; this is especially true regarding when discussing positive traits of efficient safety officers. Instead of berating or making fun of 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.
Any effective administrator must have a working knowledge of department SOPs, 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. Ignorance is never a good defense.
In order to be an effective leader, one must have excellent social skills. In the fire service, a good communicator will strive to synchronize all shifts to work together as one department – thus creating a much safer and more efficient fire department. An effective departmental safety officer can be a key change person in this effort.
Are you the researcher, the one with the facts? Are you viewed as the “answer guy” and routinely sought out in technical matters related to safety?
Do you know how to ascertain what is called for in NFPA standards and other fact based publications/statistics relating to fire? You don’t need to know everything — just where it can be found.
“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.
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 demonstrate the right way in an acceptable manner. Remember; focus on the problem, not the person.
What’s next? New technology creates new hazards to firefighters. The fire service has always been reactive — 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 keeping the department safer along the way.
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.
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!
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/helmets 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:
“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882
Dave Murphy retired as Assistant Chief of the Richmond, KY fire department and currently serves as an Associate Professor in the Fire and Safety Engineering Technology Program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is a past Eastern Director for the Fire Department Safety Officers Association and currently serves on NFPA 610 which deals with Safety at Motorsports Venues.