In the industrial fire brigade, the safety officer is an important, and at times, overlooked member of the team. Staffing pressures, requirements for training hours and competing priorities (such as turnarounds and projects) present challenges to fire brigade leadership.

Just as process operators and engineers are not all the same, not all safety professionals are prepared to be a safety officer for emergency response. As industrial firefighters, we need to develop safety officers who are members of our team and understand what makes our work different.

The safety officer can be of great use to the incident commander. When used appropriately, they should be moving around the fire ground to actively look for hazards. The safety officer should be empowered to intervene on unsafe acts or conditions; and then report back to incident command.

This feedback loop is important so that we learn as we respond. If this feedback does not make its way back to incident command, the commander could repeat the same command direction without a true understanding of the hazard. The safety officer is most effective when mobile. If the incident commander and the safety officer are standing in the same position, they are seeing the same hazards.

This also means they are missing the same hazards. The safety officer should avoid freelancing, but remain mobile, in order to continuously assess the effectiveness of controls. In order to safely operate in a hot zone, the safety officer should be included in the same fitness to work and respiratory protection programs as the firefighters.

As refinery operations and communities share boundaries, the public expects quick action to address a facility fire. We must take quick action to reduce severity, duration and consequence of the incident. By the very nature of industrial firefighting we accept a slightly higher risk tolerance as emergency responders.

While this seems obvious, it is also important to note that we must still manage the exposure and risk to responders. Industrial fire brigades have numerous controls in place to manage the risk. This is where the safety officer shows their value.

While the incident commander manages a different risk profile than daily business, the safety officer must identify hazards, assess risks and recommend controls in a different manner than daily work. Some examples of such controls are provided below. 

The Incident Command System (ICS) principles remind us that we use different controls to manage a response than we use for daily business. These include job titles, reporting structure, span of control and operational periods, all serving to help the incident commander manage exposure to responders.

Industrial firefighting is different from daily facility operations or projects. Tactics in industrial settings are different than those of our municipal counterparts. These tactics are trained and deployed because they allow responders to maintain their personal safety while making tactical advances on the fire.

As a result, the accurate selection of tactics, as well as the proper execution, serve as an additional mitigation to the hazards threatening industrial firefighters.

Personal Protective Equipment certainly receives a lot of attention, but it is important to note that it should always be the last line of defense in managing risk. We never want to just rely on our PPE, but we should maintain it AND wear it as though our lives depend on it.

Documentation of these controls is a critical element to the business of emergency responders. Refinery or chemical plant personnel are familiar with the standing facility’s permit to work process. However, during the initial stages of an incident, the standing permit to work process may be too slow for the pace of the incident.

As such, your organization may adopt an incident site safety plan document that can serve as the work permit for initial response actions. This is generally supported by some policy language, or guidance in the health and safety plan. This can be an effective tool to enable response actions and provide documentation of the identified hazards & chosen controls.

The Site Safety Plan takes practice. The document is helpful, but it should be viewed as a tool to document a thought process and leadership decisions. Remember, under ICS, the ultimate accountability for safety falls to the IC, the safety officer is an advisor.

The effectiveness of the safety officer will largely be determined by the relationship with the team. If the team doesn’t know the safety officer on a first name basis, they may not trust that individual when making a safety intervention, or recommendation. Similarly, the safety officer must have a working knowledge of industrial firefighting strategies and tactics. They must understand how these connect to the response objectives.

In order to maintain the trust of the team, and support the resolution of an incident, the safety officer must be judicious in when, where and how to conduct safety interventions. A safety intervention is a crucial part of a facility’s safety culture and should be encouraged. Particularly during an incident, the method and timing of an interventions should be clearly understood.

The safety officer must think with big picture perspective and a personal safety mindset. In some scenarios, it is best to complete the task, then pull the team together to discuss the hazards. A unique element of emergency response in the industrial setting is that an ill-timed safety intervention could create a greater hazard to front line responders.

This topic should be discussed with your leadership before an incident occurs. These are also skills that should be practiced in training, to ensure the team has a habit of including the safety officer in their initial response actions.

Actions and Outcomes to Take Back to the Fire House:

  • Include your safety officer in fire brigade training.
  • Improved trust among the team.
  • Safety officer better understands the hazards and tactics of the fire brigade.
  • During incident, deploy a safety officer down range.
  • Identifies hazards that would not otherwise be visible from the production unit boundaries or command post.
  • If the safety officer and the incident commander are standing together, they are seeing the same things, but they are also missing the same things!
  • Integrate the site safety plan into your drills.
  • Put ink to paper- practicing the site safety plan will create better use of the tool.
  • Use the site safety plan to conduct a safety briefing during the drill.

The role of safety officer is a unique position on the team. The safety officer must have specific training to be prepared for their important contribution to the team. Their ability to identify hazards and help the incident commander manage risk requires a different skillset, and way of thinking, than a safety professional assigned to daily business. safety officers need to be trusted by the team, including the incident commander.

Next time your industrial fire brigade is on the training field, or responding to an incident, ask yourself: “Where is the safety officer?”

Bradley Hubbard is a member of Shell Emergency Management, where he supports offshore operations for exploration/production in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. He serves as a guest instructor at the Texas A&M Brayton Fire Training Field, where he teaches industrial firefighters for Shell refineries & chemical plants.