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Firefighter Safety Blog: Stacking the Deck for Firefighter Safety

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When I took over as Chief Safety Officer last summer, I was pretty sure that I would get to respond on a lot of fires.  It seemed like we had a big 'greater alarm' fire every two months or so, and the Safety Chief is automatically dispatched on all 2nd alarm and greater fires.  Also, I thought that I would have opportunities to monitor the radio and respond on routine fires (house fires, and smaller commercial fires) by adding myself to the response assignment.  The reality of the situation is that I spend a lot of time in the office and at meetings and training sessions, and have had very few chances to respond on fires since my reassignment. The past two weeks have been a different story altogether.  We have had four greater alarm fires and I have had a chance to respond on all of them.  I carry a pager 24/7 and usually when it goes off it is a test for the Emergency Operations Center (don't ask – it's where we go in a 'worst case' scenario).  But lately, when the pager goes off, I get to respond code 3 (lights and siren) to the scene of a large fire. 

In one of my past blogs, I outlined how Portland Fire & Rescue assigns two battalion chiefs to each fire.  The first to arrive at the fire takes command, develops a strategy, and orchestrates the activities of the companies on scene.  The second arriving battalion chief assumes the position of incident safety officer (ISO).  As the fire fighting operation progresses, the ISO watches for scene safety and is responsible for being the eyes and ears of the incident commander – relaying status reports and seeing the 'big picture' of how the operation is progressing.  If the fire is particularly aggressive and our on scene resources prove insufficient to control the situation, a greater alarm is called.  More resources respond and yours truly gets a page.  I monitor the radio and if it sounds like a situation where I could be of some use, I will respond.  When I arrive at the fire, the ISO has already been assigned and will usually remain in that position for the duration.  I will act as either a second ISO or team up with the existing ISO or take over and free the original one to assume another position (taking over a division of the fire fighting operation most likely).  So when I arrive, one of my first goals is to meet with the current ISO and discuss the particular hazards, concerns, and developments presented by this fire situation. 

The recent rash of greater alarm fires has driven home some observations that I have. There is no way to prevent every injury, but by working together, we can improve scene safety and enhance the environment our fire fighters work in.

It is impossible to be everywhere on the fire scene at once, so the ISO only sees a small slice of the hands-on operations that are taking place.  But by trying to see the big picture, evaluating structural stability, reading smoke conditions to determine where the fire is headed, and conferring with the incident commander, the ISO can hopefully stave off a catastrophe.  Ultimately, a fire fighter's safety is mostly in their own hands.  They rely on their training, experience, and wits to stay safe on the scene of a fire.  Their company officers must also act as a 'safety look out' for their team.  With all of these checks and balances, our hope, and my goal, is to keep our fire fighters safe.  It's a dangerous job in a dangerous environment, but by watching out for each other we can make it safer, which ultimately makes it safer for you. 

Click on the links below to read Safety Chief Bancroft's previous Firefighter Safety Blogs:

Until next time – be safe!

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May 18, 2010

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Spam Prevention In the Pacific Northwest, what state is Portland in?