Few emergency responders would disagree that under the incident command system a safety officer has the immediate authority to stop or prevent an unsafe act. For example, if during a fire operation he happens upon a ladder that is not heeled right, he can order a firefighter to correct the situation.
"That's just part of the incident," said David White of Fire & Safety Specialists. "There may be 300 men on a fire scene and the safety officer is dealing with two guys on a ladder. We just fixed that problem."
But what if a safety officer then spots a 30,000 gallon propane tank with direct flame impingement? It is an imminent hazard that could negatively - potentially fatally -- impact people on the fire ground. Does he have the authority to immediately shut down the entire operation?
Strange as it may seem, industrial fire responders disagree on this point of procedure. Incident commanders tend to be of two minds - 'no' and 'hell no.' Chain of command must not be breached, period. However, safety officers stubbornly resist any suggestion that their authority is not absolute in such circumstances.
At its most basic, incident command is practical management in its most basic form, White said.
"The problem is some people try to make incident command into rocket science," he said. "It really isn't."? Common sense applies to most situations, regardless of scale.
Managing a disaster on the scale of the World Trade Center is different from managing a simple car fire. Different mindsets apply when trying to impose incident command on situations of varying magnitude.
"In the safety culture, they don't believe anything is worth the possibility of getting hurt," White said. "There are lots of things in firefighting that the safety culture would have problems with. At some point you have to weigh the risk against the situation."
Joe Brantley, a retired industrial fire chief and FSS associate, said that a safety man can always ask - repeat ask - to shut down a specific part of an operation that is considered unsafe.
"If he runs up against a wall and feels strongly enough about it he can escalate using the incident command system," Brantley said.
His first move is to notify the operations chief that there is an unsafe situation warrenting that operations be shut down.
"I would hope that the operations chief would be smart enough to say 'Let's delay that activity until we get this resolved,' Brantley said.
If not, the next move is to take up the issue with the off-site incident commander through his safety officer. However, the on-site safety officer does not have the authority to shut down an entire operation on his own authority, Brantley said.
"You've got a lot of safety guys who really think they can throw their weight around - and they can," Brantley said. "But you just can't shut down a whole operation because the safety man says 'I want it done' without consultation and working through incident command."
In the U.S., the incident command system is a standardized, on-scene, all-hazard incident management concept originally designed for emergency management agencies and later federalized. However, some companies apply incident command differently than other companies.
"Each company has their own philosophy," White said. "As much as the government says this is the Bible, not everybody follows it in lock step. We're talking about a fire service that can't even agree on standardized hose thread."
FSS associate Louis N. Molino is the author of "Emergency Incident Management Systems." The on site incident safety officer, or ISO, has the absolute authority to shut down operations he may deem to be unsafe, but only after consultation with the on site incident command, Molino said.
"The problem is that some companies want you to go all the way back up to corporate level," Molino said.
Some situations do not allow time for in depth consultation. White draws on his experience with municipal fire fighting for an example.
"I once saved several firefighters' lives by acting immediately," White said. "It was a restaurant fire. While the incident commander was in front of the building, I walked around to the rear. I saw that the air conditioners atop the building were beginning to sag, about to fall in. I grabbed the incident commander and said 'Get your men out now!'"
As the last person was coming out the front of the restaurant, the building collapsed.
The difference in this case is that while incident command was observed in spirit, not every position on the incident command chart may be filled, said Molino.
"A fire chief returning to the station from lunch in his command car comes upon a car fire," said Molino. "He picks up the radio and says, 'Car one to dispatch, give me an engine at the intersection of X and Y.' He gets out of the car, sizes up the fire, pulls the pin on his extinguisher, sweeps the fire and it goes out."
By reporting the fire he has fulfilled the function of command, Molino said. He gets a civilian to direct traffic, fulfilling the role of liaison. If a reporter asks him who put the fire out he is fulfilling the role of information.
"He pulled the pin on the extinguisher - that's operations," Molino said. "He planned for this by putting the extinguisher in his car. That's logistics. When he goes back to the station he fills out the reports and replaces the extinguisher. That's finance and administration."
Every function of incident command has been fulfilled, which is the important part, he said. In real life, assigning a separate person to each function is dictated by available staffing and the size of the event.
Even within FSS differences of opinions exist on the safety officer issue. According to Molino, personnel serving as the safety officer in industrial incidents tend to come from the safety department.
"The safety department is a nine-to-five operation that has the luxury to sit back and think about stuff," Molino said. "For example, there may be an industrial operation that involves a lot of danger such as confined space entry or hazardous chemicals."
Brantley disagrees with Molino in that safety officer in the context of emergency response refers to a part of the fire response organization, not the authority of the safety department. The safety officer is usually a firefighter, not plant safety.
"In the incident command system there is a performance group called safety," Brantley said. "They have a line of command through to the incident commander. They can call on individual acts of safety and tell them what is unsafe. If that person balks, they have to right to escalate through the chain of command."
Concerning normal operations, the safety department's word is law, Molino said. Not so with regard to emergency response.
"Let's say we are going to work with an acid that we normally don't use at this plant," Molino said. "The safety officer looks at the MSDS and sees that we don't have the proper PPE. Since they have to go buy the right stuff, they put the job off for a week."
By comparison, emergency response such as fire fighting involves inherent risks. The mindset of a safety officer has to be different during an emergency, Molino said. He cites the words of retired Phoenix fire chief Alan Brunacini, thought by many to have written the Bible on modern fire command.
"Brunacini said 'Risk a little to save a little, but risk nothing to save nothing,'" Molino said. Translation - there is a difference between an acceptable risk and sacrificing for a lost cause.
According to White, the difficulty of defining safety's role in the incident command structure comes from the fact that training, no matter how diligent, can never be a substitute for real world experience.
"The most difficult part of our business is that we are preparing people to go to war and there are no wars, so to speak," White said. "We aren't having big industrial fires at the rate we used to. How do we overcome this? Like the military, we train, train and train. Command and decision making personnel go through simulators. Everybody knows it and follows it."
Unfortunately, changes come about in the real world. When those changes happen, it is hard to change ingrained practices and standards of operation, White said.
"There is a difference between risking entry to a burning crack house as opposed to one where there might be three kids inside," White said.