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The Importance of Accountability

Issue 4 and Volume 5.

I remember my first calculator in grade school. It could do all the basic mathematical functions. My teacher, Sister Mary Vincent, was adamantly against us using calculators. No matter how clever or rational our arguments seemed, we were unable to convince her to give in. She would say, “You need to be proficient at doing math by hand and in your head. There will come a time when calculators will be allowed—but not now.” At the time we thought she was archaic; but now, I understand her rationale (more on this later). Today there are calculators for algebra and calculus, graphing, taxes, investments, retirement, mortgages and even hydraulics. They’re found in laptops, cell phones, wrist watches and even pens!

The fire service is no different; every year that goes by delivers more high-tech systems. But just like Sister Mary Vincent, fire officers have a responsibility to ensure that all firefighters learn the basics before learning to rely on technology. Perhaps nowhere is this more important than the issue of firefighter accountability.

Resistance to Accountability
According to NIOSH reports, lack of firefighter accountability is one of the top five causes of firefighter deaths. At the Metropolitan Chiefs Conference in 2000, it was the subject of a keynote speech.

Ten years later, how are we doing?

In 2007, nine firefighters were lost in the Charleston (S.C.) Sofa Super Store Fire, and in 2008, four firefighters were injured (one seriously) at the Stilt Court Fire in Sacramento, Calif. Inadequate communications (also in the NIOSH top five), combined with the lack of a functional accountability system, were significant factors, according to both cities’ investigative reports. Based on these fires and several others, I’d say we still have a long way to go.

Using accountability systems is mandated by NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, NFPA 1521: Standard for Fire Department Safety Officer and NFPA 1561: Standard for Emergency Incident Management Systems. Plus, if you work in an OSHA state like Washington, it’s state law; you simply don’t have a choice. So why are fire departments still not using effective accountability systems?

I think there are two reasons: 1) nationwide indifference to the concept, and 2) the fire service has been unable to agree on the definition of firefighter accountability. But rest assured, after a line-of-duty death, prosecuting attorneys will have copies of these standards, your department standard operating procedures and the investigative report.

So why do I think there’s resistance to accountability systems? Following are some types of comments I’ve heard or read over the years from fire service officers.

  • “We are perpetuating a myth that plastic fasteners can substitute for leadership.”
  • “Accountability tags are really firefighter dog tags for identification of the body after the fact.”
  • “We’re using game board firefighting, convincing ourselves that it will keep us safe and ‘accounted’ for. That’s CYA management.”
  • “I believe a better way to keep track of our people during an operation is to use a PAR [personnel accountability report].”
  • “In my opinion, you need strict discipline, and if the firefighter is working under the direction of a company officer, who is working directly with the incident commander, then we know where he is at all times.”

On the other hand, perhaps the most sobering quote comes from Deputy Chief Larry Anderson (ret.): “The Dallas Fire Department uses a passport accountability system. Getting used to the routine was the toughest part. During my 30 years with DFD, we have lost six firefighters in structure fires. I firmly believe they died because we did not know where they were.”

Basics First
Technology has allowed the fire service to make great advances. Just look at fire apparatus. Fire mechanics are considered more valuable—or at least more valuable than those who are just good with a wrench—if they understand and can fix computerized electrical systems.

Additionally, GPS-involved technology is making huge in-roads in the area of firefighter accountability. These new systems will soon allow ICs to pinpoint the exact location of a firefighter inside a building. It won’t be long before they’ll transmit a firefighter’s heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and body-core temperature as well.

Let me be the first to say that I welcome these and any other technological advances that will make the firefighter safer inside structure fires. My concern with the rapid development of computerized, high-tech firefighter accountability systems is that the fire service will turn to these “fool-proof” methods to address the problem of firefighter accountability without ever understanding what accountability is.

Turning to technology to fix this problem is like handing out calculators to every kid when they enter grade school to solve math problems without ever teaching them how to solve problems in their head. We must become proficient at the manual method—the method currently used by most fire departments—before we substitute it with technology.

Technology can be a great tool. However, it can give you a false sense of security. After all, technology is subject to human error. Fancy electrical systems are only as reliable as their power source and the firefighter assigned to exchange that power source at shift change.

As Dr. Burt Clark with the National Fire Academy once said, “You can’t engineer your way out of bad human behavior.”

Whose Job Is It?
Some say that it’s the responsibility of the company officer to maintain crew integrity and use a PAR. But what happens when the officer goes down? A PAR is not accountability. It’s a component of accountability and takes some time to complete. A PAR is only good if a) the firefighter is able to talk, and b) the IC can hear.

In the Charleston example, there was neither. Of the nine firefighters who died, four were company officers. There were 16 fragmented distress messages, transmitted by lost or disoriented firefighters who couldn’t be identified, that were either missed or misunderstood due to heavy radio traffic, loud ambient noise on the fireground and confusion. The term “mayday” was used only one time and was not heard by the IC or anyone else at the fire scene. It wasn’t until an off-duty battalion chief who heard the mayday responded and had a face-to-face report with the fire chief that the chief recognized firefighters were in trouble inside the building.

As for crew integrity, when a catastrophic event happens and severe heat conditions rapidly develop into an untenable atmosphere, it’s unreasonable to expect firefighters who are panic-stricken, distressed and enduring thermal assault to remain calm or together. The physiological fight-or-flight response kicks in and “it’s every man for himself” to try to get out. This was the case in Charleston, Sacramento and our tragic fires in Seattle.

Keep Control on the Scene
Some command officers think they’re sharp enough to keep track of company assignments and locations by memory. When a catastrophic event happens, it happens too fast. You may receive multiple maydays and have more than one company unaccounted for. The scene quickly becomes intense and, quite often, chaotic. The fire may still be out of control, and you now have firefighter rescues to deal with. That’s a lot of pressure to put on an IC. Some chiefs can’t even remember to put on their fire helmet and coat at a fire. Are you sure you want to trust their ability to personally remember who you are and where you’re assigned when a commercial roof suddenly collapses?

I’ve been on mutual-aid responses where I don’t know anyone outside of my crew, much less the IC, and vice-versa. Volunteer fire departments deal with this all the time. Unless there’s a duty roster, the chief never knows who’s responding, much less who’s responding from the neighboring volunteer fire department. In career departments, the roster can change from firefighters being on vacation, off on trade, out sick or in on overtime. The fact of the matter is this: As the incident becomes more complicated, this information must be written down. It cannot be merely committed to memory. Every tactical worksheet I’ve seen has a checklist of resources to jog the memory of the IC so nothing is missed. Why should we treat accountability as if it’s any less important?

What We Can Do
To have a functional accountability system, the fire service must change the way it teaches strategy and tactics. Currently, we view accountability as separate from the incident action plan. It’s almost an afterthought—like setting up traffic cones around the apparatus. Whichever accountability system your department uses, firefighters and companies must be tracked when the tactical assignments are made—not after the fact.

If you can’t tell me where every firefighter and company is on the fireground at any given time, you don’t have an accountability system—you have a roster. If you can’t tell me where a firefighter is when a mayday is transmitted or a sudden catastrophic event happens, then you don’t have an accountability system—you have a roster.

Every accountability system, whether manual or computerized, must give you the following information:

  • Firefighter’s name and/or radio ID number
  • Unit or company
  • Assignment
  • Location on fireground

Accountability is rooted in an organized thought process, not on name tags and status boards. If you can learn to use this fundamental technique manually, you can have an accurate accountability system even if you only have a pen and paper.

Sample Scenarios
Consider a typical house fire. Assume companies are checking in at the command post with name tags and passports. (A well-trained company officer or battalion chief should be able to assemble a status board and establish the locations of the first-in units on the fireground based on department SOPs and initial radio reports.)

This status board is divided up into four columns: Floor 1, Floor 2, Floor 3 and R (for roof). Abbreviated assignments are written at the bottom of the passport. The passports will be placed according to assignment locations.

E1 is first on scene and takes a 1 ¾” handline to Floor 2 for fire attack (FA). They get a water supply (WS). L1 shows up and performs forcible entry (FE) and search and rescue (SAR) on Floor 2. E2 arrives and takes a back up/exposure line (BU) to Floor 2 and gets a second WS. L2 arrives and is sent to the roof for vertical ventilation (Vent). Rescue 1 shows up and is sent to SAR Floor 1 and the garage (GAR), which is also on Floor 1. E3 is ordered to check the attic for extension and extinguish any fire. They access from Floor 2. E6 and L6 are assigned to rapid intervention team (RIT) and are staged outside on the “A” side, same level as Floor 1 so they’re placed in the first column. Medic 1 is also staged close by the RIT and are also in column 1. E4 and E5 are in staging as reserve units waiting for an assignment.

As you can see by studying the status board and the columns, you have a map that accurately reflects the entire incident action plan. You know the name of each firefighter, their assigned unit, their tactical assignment and their location on the fireground. You’re now prepared to locate any firefighter who transmits a mayday, or any company that gets caught in a sudden catastrophic event, in just a matter of seconds. Now you know where to deploy the RIT.

Scenario 1: “Mayday! Watts! I can’t breathe! Help! ” Where is he? Watts is E1, Floor 2, on the fire attack hoseline. Make radio contact with the engine officers on Floor 2, reassign L1 to assist Watts and deploy RIT to floor 2.

Scenario 2: “Command from dispatch, we are getting an emergency radio signal from radio No. 731063. No acknowledgement.” Who is it?

Suznevich. He’s on L1, operating on Floor 2 performing SAR. Notify Capt. Anew he has a member down. Redirect E2 to firefighter rescue, deploy RIT to Floor 2 and assign E4 to take over the assignment of E2. Make E5 the new RIT.

Scenario 3: If any firefighter calls for a mayday and uses the National Fire Academy acronym LUNAR (Location, Unit, Name, Assignment/Air supply, Resources needed) and is able to transmit all this information clearly, that makes finding him easy. But even if they’re only able to give you one of the four pieces of information, or the IC was only able to hear fragmented pieces of LUNAR, through the process of elimination and the PAR, the IC can figure out who’s in trouble. For example, “I’m running out of air!” Who’s been in the longest? Probably E1; they were first in. If all you hear is “Mayday! Attic!” it’s a crewmember from E3.

Scenario 4: The roof suddenly collapses and flames are shooting out. The attic was obviously involved. How many companies are in trouble and who’s missing? You have L2 with Lt. Yob and firefighters Kickels, Koskie and Wirth. They were venting the roof and are now in the well-involved attic. E3 was checking the attic and are possibly involved in this collapse. Call for a PAR from E3. No answer. You’re now missing Lt. Olson, Buchan, Leyva and Dennis. Reassign E2 and L1 to firefighter rescue, deploy the RIT. You’ll need E4, E5 and the medics, plus you’ll need to call for additional alarms and EMS units. This is now a major firefighter rescue incident. But you know exactly how many companies are missing—E3 and L2—you know you have eight firefighters missing, you know who they are, and you know where they are.

Final Thoughts
With a duty roster to cross-check names, an IC could quickly sketch out and duplicate the information above just using companies and assignments on a sheet of paper. That’s all there is to firefighter accountability. It’s actually very simple.

In all my classes teaching this skill, I’ve never had a student who was unable to locate a missing firefighter after a mayday. This is a teachable skill that only requires proper training and practice.