By Maggie A. DeBoard, Major, Fairfax County, Virginia, Police Department
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n Fairfax County, Virginia, the police department has taken a progressive and unique step in the direction of officer safety. Through the establishment of its full-time Safety Officer Program, the department has made a deep commitment to institutionalize and instill a culture of safety within all levels of the organization. This involves dedicating resources and putting mechanisms in place to manage risk, prevent accidents, and decrease injury.
The cultural shift towards organizational safety has not come easily, despite a recent departmental training accident that ended in tragedy and highlighted the critical need for change. Complacency and officers’ feelings that newly established protocols are not always needed have hindered the rapid acceptance of the program, but officers are now beginning to see firsthand the value of its dedicated Safety Officer Program and understand that its purpose is to look out for their health and well-being.
Initially established in 2004 under the umbrella of the department’s Civil Disturbance Unit, the Safety Officer Program was formed to maintain officer safety while law enforcement personnel were wearing personal protective equipment for situations involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The program began as a nonstanding unit with officers assigned to the safety program on a part-time basis as a supplement to their regular assignments. In these initial stages, the specific function served by the Safety Officer Program and the lack of a dedicated program and staff forced the department’s WMD coordinator to take a central role in the program’s development and leadership.
Developing a comprehensive law enforcement Safety Officer Program was uniquely challenging. National research to determine best practices in the field found that few agencies provided model structures to guide development of this new program. Research also revealed that most law enforcement agencies that had an existing safety program performed many of the administrative tasks associated with Fairfax County’s program, but did not incorporate response to operational incidents or proactive involvement in training exercises. Furthermore, although fire and rescue departments have longstanding safety programs, the job functions between the two public safety agencies are significantly different. As a result, the Safety Officer Program developed within the Fairfax County Police Department is unique to law enforcement and comprehensive in scope.
Training police safety officers became a difficult challenge. There are few courses specifically designed for safety officers in the law enforcement field outside of established incident command structure (ICS) courses. The department chose to utilize these existing ICS training courses, as well as the traditional safety officer courses intended for fire and rescue personnel, to form the initial foundation of the training curriculum. The department developed a training plan that included mandated courses in a wide variety of areas including WMD response, ICS, personal protective equipment, respiratory protection and fit testing, HAZMAT, and risk management-related topics. Safety officers are not intended to become experts in any one area, but rather should develop a broad range of knowledge in a variety of areas involving safety.
Since its inception, the program has evolved into an all-encompassing risk management–based program, focusing on preventive issues in addition to supporting operational response and training. The Fairfax County Police Department’s Safety Officer Program is designed to take a broad look at safety issues affecting all personnel across all areas of responsibility. The program is currently overseen by a full-time supervisor under the department’s patrol bureau, supported by a team of eight supplemental safety officers and one supplemental supervisor assigned on a part-time basis. These supplemental officers rotate call-out responsibilities, coverage on operational and training assignments, and administrative tasks as needs dictate. Duties of safety officers include response to operational incidents and training exercises, identification of safety-related hazards within the agency, development of solutions to eliminate or mitigate those hazards, and other administrative and risk management–based duties as defined in the program.
Integration of IACP’s SafeShield Principles
Fairfax County’s Safety Officer Program takes guidance from the IACP’s SafeShield program by incorporating the IACP program’s eight principles for a safe work environment into its design and structure. These principles are applied in unique and innovative ways within the police department, with the goal of enhancing officer safety. The Safety Officer Program is supported by other established programs within the agency, such as the Special Operations Medical Program, Injury Care and Prevention Program, and Exposure Control Program, all working cooperatively with each other to ensure the safest possible work environment for all personnel. The program continues to evolve through continual networking and outreach with partnering agencies.
Responsible management. Central to the successful implementation of an effective safety officer program is support from senior leadership in the organization. Without it, the value of a safety program will not be supported and embraced by line-level personnel. Support from the top is critical to affect necessary cultural change within the organization.
Top-level support in the Fairfax County Police Department was demonstrated through the establishment of a dedicated, full-time position to lead the Safety Officer Program. The creation of this new position came during a difficult budget year in which some existing police department positions were being eliminated. Colonel David M. Rohrer, chief of police in Fairfax County, saw tremendous value in the Safety Officer Program and placed a priority on the program and its mission. His leadership and vision in the formation of the program have set the tone for its acceptance and success.
Control of operating exposures. Significant efforts have been made over the past several years to ensure officers are protected against a variety of potential dangers. An ongoing effort has been made to purchase the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) available to limit officer exposure to danger and minimize risk during operational response.
The safety officer administers the department’s Respiratory Protection Program and works cooperatively with the WMD coordinator to ensure both annual fit testing of all personnel and selection of proper PPE such as Air Purifying Respirators (APRs), Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for select units, and N-95 masks.
Issuance of PPE is not done without proper training. Officers who are not proficient in issued equipment use pose additional safety problems and negatively impact the agency’s ability to provide effective response. The safety officer assists with PPE training and ensures officers are properly outfitted and medically monitored while working in operational or training environments. This responsibility is shared by the safety officer, the WMD coordinator, and the Special Operations medical personnel.
Medical monitoring is performed by departmental EMTs or paramedics to ensure the safety of personnel when wearing specific PPE. This function is overseen by the Special Operations Medical Program (SOMP), which also provides tactical medics and EMTs during operational incidents and training exercises involving high risk. Baseline medical standards have been established to ensure officers wearing PPE are fit to perform the duties assigned. Officers are monitored before donning PPE as well as after performing their assigned duties. In the interest of officer safety, those who do not meet baseline medical standards are withheld from participating in the operation or training exercise.
The Exposure Control Program is operated out of the Administrative Support Bureau and provides personnel who are exposed to a variety of infectious diseases immediate medical treatment, testing, and follow-up. Detectives assigned to work these exposures are available 24 hours and rotate on-call assignments to ensure coverage. Officers who become exposed to infectious diseases such as Hepatitis, Tuberculosis, AIDS, blood-borne pathogens, or a host of other potential contagions take comfort in the fact that someone has been personally assigned to their case to provide immediate care, education, and guidance. The safety officers have begun to work closely with these detectives and act as personal liaisons, when necessary, between affected officers and the Administrative Support Bureau.
More unique issues, such as the H1N1 outbreak, have provided additional opportunities for the safety officer to network and partner with outside agencies. Working with Fairfax County’s Pan Flu Committee, the safety officer serves as the liaison for the department on the dissemination of information from the health department. Best practices were shared with departmental personnel regarding practices to minimize exposure to the flu virus; information and education on flu vaccines was disseminated; and the safety officer worked to ensure a ready supply of disposable gloves and disinfectant wipes was distributed to all patrol stations.
Safety as a condition of employment. To ensure that the proper message is sent to new employees regarding the importance of safety, police academy recruits are exposed to strict rules and procedures regarding perpetuating a safe working environment at the firearms range, driving track, or in physical hands-on training such as defensive tactics. A zero-tolerance policy is in place with regard to safety violations to prevent injuries and reinforce the importance of safety in all aspects of the job. Repeated safety violations, or those of a severe nature, often result in discipline or termination. This policy continues throughout an officer’s career, beyond initial recruit training.
Training employees to work safely. To properly educate employees on workplace safety, the department’s safety officers spent months visiting each division’s roll calls and provided information on the purpose, mission, and direction of the safety program. Training first was provided to all command staff officers to lay the foundation for support from senior leadership.
Since the establishment of a dedicated safety officer position, information has been gathered and gaps identified on needed safety procedures and protocols, resulting in several improvements to workplace safety. Examples include the creation and standardization of decontamination procedures for police vehicles, the standardization of equipment and training for all employees operating chain saws for emergency response, and the creation and placement of medical response bags and trauma kits in each police cruiser and in select police work locations. In addition, a dedicated safety page has been established on the department’s intranet site to allow employees unlimited access to information on safety-related issues and contact information for each safety officer. The Safety Officer Program continues to develop solutions to address many of the deficiencies identified.
To ensure that training is conducted in the safest possible manner while also allowing for participation in realistic scenarios to enhance operational readiness, a standard operating procedure (SOP) is in development for departmental training safety guidelines. This SOP requires the use of a training safety officer (TSO) on all training exercises. The role of a TSO is to promote a safe training environment and prevent injury to participating personnel. TSOs are not permitted to participate in the training exercise, to ensure their entire focus remains on the safety of those involved in the exercise. TSOs have the authority to immediately stop an exercise if safety becomes a concern.
Supervision for safety. For continued safety in the workplace, supervisors and commanders are expected to provide the necessary oversight during operations and training. Operations are normally highly supervised and structured, but training can be informal and often creates a greater concern for safety and oversight. Complacency can also become a concern when training is done repetitively and without incident over a period of time.
To combat this, training notification forms have recently been developed for specific specialty units and are in development for use department-wide. These notification forms require review and signature from commanders before training is initiated. Commanders are expected to review the type of training being conducted, the mechanics of the training delivered, and the safety measures to be utilized. This form of accountability is intended to engage commanders in all activities and ensure safety requirements are being implemented.
Prompt correction of deficiencies. To prevent accidents and injuries and ensure that identified problems do not recur, corrections must be made to known deficiencies. A true learning agency must address issues surrounding safety, as well as traditional issues of education and training. Learning from mistakes is critical to the effective growth of an agency; however, before attention can be given to the correction of deficiencies, mechanisms need to be in place to identify them.
The Fairfax County Police Department uses a variety of mechanisms to identify safety gaps and related problems. Afteraction reports, debriefing sessions, site safety inspections, equipment inspections, and issues raised through the county’s Risk Management Division have all contributed to procedures and protocols in place to cultivate a safe and effective working environment for department personnel.
A recent example of how this process has been implemented in Fairfax County involves workplace deficiencies identified at the county’s animal shelter. The safety officer, working in cooperation with the Risk Management Division and Virginia Occupational Safety and Heath (VOSH), addressed a number of physical workplace safety issues affecting employees in the building. Through newly established protocols, additional employee training, and improvements to personal protective equipment, positive changes have been made to workplace safety in that unit.
Sometimes recommendations come from disciplinary cases or incident critiques in which issues are identified as contributing to negative performance or outcomes. When this occurs, departments are obligated to make the necessary changes to address safety issues and mitigate risk before future incidents arise. “Departments have an obligation and duty to do everything possible, within reason, to protect their personnel from known hazards” said Lieutenant David Goldberg, lead safety officer for the Fairfax County Police Department. Not all injuries can be prevented, but the risk associated with exposure to injuries during operations and training must be clearly identified, eliminated whenever possible, and minimized at the very least.
Effective solutions to problems or deficiencies cannot always be made immediately. Sometimes the process involved in making those corrections requires time and money. Priorities have to be established when funding is limited, and alternative sources of funding such as grants must be identified for procurement. Last year, Fairfax County identified the need for an electronic personnel-accountability system to be used on operational incidents. This need had been discussed for years but rose to a critical level after a five-day incident involving local, state, and federal agencies that overwhelmed the department’s ability to track personnel and resources arriving at the scene of the incident. Logging names by pen and paper has proved inefficient and ineffective, especially during large-scale incidents. The safety officer is currently spearheading a project to purchase a personnel accountability system—one that ties in with existing internal computer programs and ensures compliance with National Incident Management System (NIMS)/ICS protocols.
The most important element: people. The concept that “we are all safety officers” has become the Fairfax County Police Department’s safety mantra and is core to involving all personnel in the successful implementation of the program. All employees are expected to take an active role in safety during both operations and training. The majority of safety-related issues raised come from officers and commanders working in the field. As a result, safety-officer liaisons have been established at each patrol station to facilitate communication with line-level officers. Liaisons have also been established within specialty bureaus, and suggestions are sought for improvements in safety from all levels of the organization.
The department is also exploring the creation of a safety hotline to alert management to potential safety-related issues. Although employees are expected to report safety violations and concerns, the reality is that personnel are sometimes afraid of being identified as whistle-blowers. An anonymous hotline provides employees with an alternative method of communication to identify problems and allows for preventive measures to be implemented before safety is compromised.
Safety while off duty. Understanding that off-duty injuries or illnesses suffered by department employees can have as serious an impact on police department staffing and operations as on-duty injuries, the Fairfax County Police Department has established resources to assist employees more efficiently with health issues and injury rehabilitation and prevention.
The department’s Injury Care and Prevention Program was piloted in 2005 and was permanently established in 2006. This program provides a dedicated athletic trainer to the police department, housed in the Fairfax County Criminal Justice Academy. The athletic trainer works closely with the county’s Risk Management Division to provide the following: primary injury evaluation and immediate care; referrals to the employee’s appropriate workers’ compensation physician, private physician, or health-care provider; administration of any medical care plans; monitoring of the progress of the employee; and administration of physical performance tests to advise physicians on duty status.
Services provided by the department’s athletic trainer are available to employees whether injuries occur on duty or off duty. Providing access to a health-care professional for minor off-duty injuries that may have gone untreated in the past has prevented problems from escalating into health issues affecting an officer’s ability to remain in an active duty status. Rehabilitation sessions held at work have improved attendance and facilitated speedy recovery. Additionally, the Injury Care and Prevention Program, working closely with the Safety Officer Program and county’s Risk Management Division, serves as an available educational resource to address all Fairfax County law enforcement employees’ health and wellness concerns.
Effecting cultural change does not occur quickly. Education and training, along with support and clear expectations from senior leadership, must be in place to cause lasting and positive change. As with any new program, skepticism is often present during the implementation phase. This is especially true for a program that is relatively new to the law enforcement profession. With continued exposure and proactive response to the needs of departmental personnel, however, the value and the need for a safety program become evident.
Whether responding to support officers on a major flood, hostage barricade incident, tactical team-training exercise, or a request to decontaminate a station locker room because of a MRSA exposure, safety officers have become a critical resource in the Fairfax County Police Department’s crusade to make safety a number 1 priority. ?
International Association of Chiefs of Police. SafeShield Project: Eight Principles for a Safe Working Environment. www.theiacp.org/About/Governance/Divisions/StateAssociationsofChiefsofPoliceSACOP/CurrentSACOPProjects/SafeShieldProject/EightPrinciples/tabid/471/Default.aspx (accessed March 14, 2010).
Please cite as:
Maggie A. DeBoard, "Safety Officer Program Makes Officer Protection a Priority," The Police Chief 77 (May 2010): 18–23,
http://policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&article_id=2077&issue_id=52010 (insert access date).