Everyone goes home in the same condition as when they responded. That’s the goal of first responder safety. It is a simple goal. Based upon results, though, it is not always easy to achieve.

Whether you work with responders who only use portable fire extinguishers or those who engage in full technician-level hazardous materials response, this article will provide ideas for helping to make sure your response personnel stay safe.

Emergencies involve risk and uncertainty. They are dynamic events that may be difficult to predict and control. If your prevention programs are working correctly, emergencies should be infrequent events, which means responders may not have opportunity to gain much actual experience. (Prevention is a key to responder safety — response personnel do not get injured at emergencies you do not have.) Emergencies typically contain aspects that may put responders under stress, both mentally and physically. All of these issues make effective emergency response challenging and create the potential for responders to be hurt or killed.

Essential elements

Proper preparation is one of the essential elements of responder safety. This includes several issues such as training, equipping and planning. Once we respond to an emergency, operational control is a critical safety and effectiveness issue.

Training is the single most important of these elements. A well-trained responder can help compensate for weaknesses in the other areas. This ability to adjust to the demands of the emergency and stay within safe operating limits is critical.

Training for responders must be based on an evaluation of the tasks they will be expected to perform during emergencies. Both knowledge and skill components must be covered. Skill training must include hands-on practice to be effective. A 20-minute DVD may do a reasonable job of passing on the knowledge required for basic use of a portable fire extinguisher but it cannot develop the skills needed.

Training for in-house responders must also be site-specific. They must train using their own equipment on the challenges they will face during actual emergencies.

Training on what not to do can be as important as training on what to do and how to do it. For example, portable fire extinguisher training should always include how to determine that the fire is too large or dangerous to be safely fought with an extinguisher.

Situational awareness is basically the skill of paying attention to what is happening around you and what the impact of those things may be on your safety and the safety of others. It is an essential skill for emergency responders at all levels of response. A frequent part of the problem when responders get injured or killed is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Situational awareness should contribute to avoiding this problem. Responders must be taught to constantly evaluate the conditions of the event and the potential consequences of those conditions. They must also, to the extent possible, be able to predict the results of their own actions on the emergency. For example, the use of too much neutralizing agent too quickly on an acid spill may make the problem much worse before it begins to make it better.

Equipment is another issue that is important to responder safety. Having the proper tool for the job is a fairly basic but important idea. For example, a hazmat team needs the proper atmospheric monitoring equipment to make determinations about the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). A combustible gas meter may help them identify whether there is sufficient vapor to ignite but it is not the proper tool if they are trying to decide which respirator protection to wear. For this decision, they need a photoionization detector.

Equipment must be properly maintained and ready for use at all times. Having the correct meter that is not calibrated or that has dead batteries is not helpful.

Planning and procedures also contribute to safe emergency response. Having more and better information is part of what effective planning should provide. This can reduce the uncertainty associated with emergencies and allow responders to make better decisions.

Procedures provide responders with reminders of the appropriate order and sequence of tasks for functions typically needed at emergencies. For example, the correct setup of a decontamination area can be easy to forget even for well-trained responders. A procedure helps them remember all the details of proper setup.

Operational control is the way we manage activities during emergency responses. The command structure and the quality of commanders is a critical part of this process. One person should always be in ultimate control of emergency response actions. This incident commander (IC) makes all the final decisions. Even if your response group only deals with low-level response a command system is important to maintaining effective control.

Scene control is an important part of keeping both responders and bystanders safe. Determining what areas are safe and which ones are not, and then clearly identifying them, helps prevent people from inadvertently wandering into unsafe areas.

Communications is another essential element of operational control. We must have the ability to collect information from front line responders and provide instructions to them. Communications must include an evacuation signal that lets responders know they should leave the area.

Control must be maintained until the emergency is completely finished. A surprising number of responders are injured during the later cleanup phases of emergency response when the perception is that hazards have been reduced.

Learn from the past

Responders do not have to be injured or killed. If you review past incidents it is often easy to see in hindsight how the deaths could have been avoided. The key issue for us is to ensure that foresight is applied sufficiently so that we can prevent the deaths and injuries. Emergencies are not very forgiving environments and responder safety is not always easy. It is, however, a worthy goal that we must pursue aggressively.