When I became the health and safety officer (HSO) of my department, it was a position previously held by the assistant chief and was one of many hats the assistant chief had to wear. In mid-2018, our agency made the move to create a dedicated HSO staff position on a full-time basis. Having been assigned to the line previously, I felt the time was right in my career to take on this new role.
At 53 years of age, I am the oldest of our career line firefighters and so I felt I was already in a father figure role to most of the firefighters. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re always going to go in the direction that I am trying to steer them, but I am doing okay so far.
Being in a supervisory and senior role didn’t automatically make me qualified to be an HSO. I believe 33 years of fire service experience helps, but before taking the position, I needed to take some baseline courses. The FEMA Health and Safety Officer and Incident Safety Officer courses are must haves for any HSO, at a minimum. Next came the Safety Program Operations course at the National Fire Academy. I attended the 2019 Fire Department Safety Officers Association conference and obtained Pro-Board Health and Safety Officer certification. Networking with local HSOs and those in previous courses has been a tremendous help, and I learned I didn’t have to go it alone as a new HSO.
Taking these courses didn’t end there. It’s important to stay up to date with fire service trends and to find out what works for other departments. Get to know the 16 Life Safety Initiatives because they must be the foundation for any effective health and safety program.
I made a list of programs that needed to be created or improved on. As the list grew, I realized I needed to prioritize because there were too many to work on simultaneously. The problem is, which topics take priority? The list is long, including better physicals, cancer prevention initiatives, behavioral health program, fitness program, and hearing conservation program.
I began with physicals. We meet with our medical service provider on a regular basis and have a good relationship with the physician and PA who oversee our program. They are well-trained in fire service challenges, NFPA guidelines, and our job requirements. In 2020, I hope to start including ultrasound scans and mammograms every two years. Now, maybe you’re thinking, how is it they are not already doing ultrasounds in their physicals? I know many departments across the country are already doing these. My department is small, and sticker shock is not an easy pill to swallow. Ultrasounds are not cheap, and I must secure funding for about 70 firefighters. That kind of stuff adds up when we’re also trying to grow as a department. I know, I’m preaching to the choir.
A cancer prevention program is easy to develop because there are so many great resources out there to cut and paste from. But getting buy-in isn’t always that easy. That’s where being a father figure helped. If the question is usually going to be “Why?” do your homework before making the pitch. I’m happy to say that we are slowly embracing it.
Our fitness program has had some ups and downs. We will be hosting the IAFF Peer Fitness Trainer course soon. We will certify five career firefighters who will oversee our wellness program in accordance with NFPA 1583. Previously, we were using a local gym to manage our fitness program. Logistics with taking crews out of their response areas and winter operations were adversely affecting our program.
Behavioral health has been a priority all along, and I have been chipping away at it here and there. We developed a peer support team using the IAFF Peer Support training and ICISF Assisting Individuals in Crisis course as baseline training for members. We use a local Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and have access to a mobile crisis service if needed.
Creating and updating our standard operating guidelines (SOGs) is an ongoing process. The courses I attended were extremely helpful with this. Networking with classmates made cut and paste a helpful tool. Sharing ideas and policies benefits everyone. Don’t ask for what you’re not willing to give.
Compliance with OSHA requirements should be somewhere at the top of the priority list. We have an obligation to protect our members whether it’s workplace practices, ensuring the proper engineering controls, required training like bloodborne pathogens, workplace violence, and the various types of harassment training.
The list can go on and on, but the important thing to remember for any young health and safety program is to take small steps. If you try to make too much happen too quickly, you will get frustrated and the firefighters will get frustrated. Get buy-in from the internal and external stakeholders. Don’t try to do everything yourself. Create a safety committee to include representation from the union, officer staff, and career and volunteer firefighters. Know your NFPA guidelines and the 16 Life Safety Initiatives and have some care and compassion for the men and women who do the job. Keep them safe and get them home at the end of the day.
Terry Kaufman is a career captain with the Gates (NY) Fire District. He has been in the fire service for 33 years starting as a volunteer firefighter in 1986 and has been a career firefighter for the past 14½ years.