Personnel accountability is vital on the fireground. Strategic tools that make tactical accountability possible will ensure your firefighters are not caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time, for the wrong reason.
Photo credit: Dennis Walus
Welcome back to Integrated Tactical Accountability, the freelance prevention and National Incident Management System (NIMS) implementation system that works. In part one (February 2011), we reminisced about the 1960s TV sitcom “Car 54, Where Are You?” The sitcom theme was the comical exploits of a fictional team of not-too-bright police officers and their police cruiser, Car 54. Their freelancing exploits and lack of accountability made for some good laughs.
The lack of personnel accountability on the fireground, however, is not amusing. The absence of tactical accountability on the fireground is downright dangerous and has contributed to the deaths of many fine men and women.
Part one introduced the concept of “tactical accountability” and described why it is important. In doing so, part one:
1. Identified National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards that “require” you to maintain tactical accountability.
2. Introduced important distinctions between personnel accountability and tactical accountability.
3. Identified who is responsible for personnel accountability.
4. Identified who is responsible for tactical accountability.
Part two will:
1. Describe how to achieve tactical accountability, using familiar strategic tools.
2. Illustrate how to establish a strategic “thread” that will connect the command post with a firefighter operating a nozzle in the hazard area.
3. Describe how to maintain tactical accountability throughout an incident.
How to Achieve Tactical Accountability
For demonstration purposes, this article will use the scenario of a two-story house with fire showing. This house fire will be referred to throughout the article.
A size-up by the first on-scene fire officer revealed fire on floor 2, smoke on floor 2 and smoke from the attic. Floor 1 was determined to be stable with hazy smoke. There is no basement. The status of life safety was deemed “unknown if occupied.” The incident commander has declared the operational mode “offensive from side A on floor 2.” This means teams will enter from side A and the main hazardous work area is on floor 2.
The incident commander has positioned a division supervisor on side A, thus the supervisor’s designator is “Division Alpha.” (The supervisor’s nametag is at the command post.) Engine 54 (at staging) has been directed to report to Division A for assignment. With passport in the team leader’s hand, the team heads to side A. The Engine 54 team leader locates the Division A supervisor and surrenders the Engine 54 passport. The Division A supervisor plugs Engine 54’s passport into the Division A action plan and conveys Engine 54’s assignment face-to-face: “Engine 54, primary search from side A on floor 2.” The Engine 54 team leader and team members enter the house from side A, ascend to floor 2 and begin the primary search. The division supervisor radios: “Main Street command from Division Alpha, primary search in progress.”
Let’s stop here and discuss the significance of what just took place. Notice that the Division A supervisor is not merely a spectator sporting a colorful vest and babysitting passports; the supervisor is supervising. The Division A supervisor has tactically accounted for Engine 54. Recall from part one that the responsibility of Engine 54’s team leader (company officer) is to C.A.R.E. (Conditions, Air, Radio and Egress) for the Engine 54 team members (in this case, two firefighters). Factoring the operational mode and the location of the Engine 54 team, the responsibility of the Division A supervisor is to monitor five things:
1. The clock – Using the 10-minute notifications that the dispatcher provides to the command post, as required by NFPA 1500 and NFPA 1561, for coordinating status reports.
2. Radio traffic – Listening for the 10-minute notifications, for emergency radio traffic, requests from assigned teams, status reports, for a change in the operational mode, for a division status report request from the command post, etc.
3. Conditions above Engine 54 – In this case, the attic; observing soffits, gable vents and the roof for evidence of deteriorating attic conditions.
4. Conditions around Engine 54 – Observing floor 2 windows for evidence of escalation/deterioration of conditions.
5. Conditions below Engine 54 – Observing floor 1 windows and open doors for evidence of heat.
The side-A position of the division supervisor serves as life insurance for Engine 54 and the other teams assigned to Division A. Additional insurance is provided by a backup team protecting egress, a rapid intervention team stabilizing utilities and perhaps raising an egress ladder, and an incident safety officer viewing the other sides of the house. If the division supervisor was on floor 1, inside the house, the division supervisor’s focus would narrow and the risk to Engine 54 (and the supervisor) would increase. Notice that the division supervisor attaches Engine 54’s passport into the Division A action plan. This begs a question: Where did the Division A action plan come from? The following strategic caveats will reveal the correct answer:
1. Division and group supervisors do not generate their own action plans; that would be strategic freelancing.
2. Division and group supervisors are assigned a geographic or functional piece of the overall Incident Action Plan (IAP). This means that division and group supervisors must obtain their piece of the overall action plan from an individual farther up the Incident Command System (ICS) food chain.
3. During this house fire scenario, the supervisor received the Division A action plan directly from the incident commander.
You should not hear something like this broadcast on the radio: “Battalion 2, on your arrival establish Division Charlie.” That assignment gives Battalion 2 the green light to freelance strategically on side C. Better to let Battalion 2 park, report to the command post, attach Battalion 2’s passport to the command post board and hand Battalion 2 the Division C action plan, which the incident commander had time to draft because of the proactive assigned of Division A.
Conveyance of the Division A action plan would be done using a simple yet powerful strategic tool: the division status board. Notice that the division status board uses shorthand to list objectives and work locations within each of the six blocks. The six blocks ensure that the division supervisor’s span of control does not exceed six teams. (Teams are represented by passports.) Running vertically along each side are strips of Velcro for attaching passports. Engine 54’s work assignment and work location have been listed using status board shorthand: “PS” for primary search and “A2” meaning that the team will enter from side A and work on floor 2. When Engine 54’s passport was attached to its assignment, tactical accountability was achieved:
Who – Engine 54, represented by the passport with member nametags
What – Primary search (PS)
Where – from side A on floor 2 (A2)
As if achieving Engine 54 tactical accountability isn’t cool enough, here’s added value:
1. Engine 54’s assignment and work location were conveyed face-to-face, eliminating radio chatter such as “on your arrival blah, blah, blah.”
2. Engine 54’s work assignment and work location are congruent with the “offensive from side A on floor 2” operational mode.
How to Establish A “Strategic Thread”
The logical medium for establishing a “strategic thread” is passports and nametags. First, you must understand a concept I call “operational congruity.” This always begins with problem identification, or size-up. Using the chart below, let’s establish operational congruity for one of the problems identified at the house fire described earlier: the smoke on floor 2.
This operational congruity is the product of, first, knowing what the problems are; second, knowing what the operational mode is; and third, selecting appropriate tactical and support objectives that will solve each problem within the margins of the declared operational mode – also known as your IAP. All that remains is to assign tactical and support objectives to teams. If necessary, you may also want to assign a method for an objective.
From this operational congruity emerges what I call “incident equilibrium,” which simply means that you (the incident commander) use the ICS to establish and maintain an appropriate balance of strategic stuff with tactical stuff. This is done by aggressively managing strategy, resources and risk from a command post. A major benefit of operational congruity is that tactical accountability is enabled. The strategic thread emerges from this operational congruity. The thread begins at the command post, connects to division and group supervisors, extends from each supervisor to company officers/team leaders, and finally extends from each team leader to firefighters operating at the business end of tactical tools such as nozzles, saws, poles and axes.
Each connection has responsibility-based focus. The command post has command-level focus; command-level focus means that there is an incident commander at the command post focused on managing three things: strategy, resources and risk. Division and group supervisors have strategic-level focus. This means that they focus on supervising their piece of the overall IAP. Supervisors should not be positioned within the hazard area. If division and group supervisors are within the hazard area (where teams operate), their strategic focus changes from strategic to the tactical focus of a team and the thread is severed. Team leaders (usually company officers) have tactical-level focus. This means that in and around the hazard area team leaders function as the strategic resource for the team, but can assist at task level if necessary (helping advance a hoseline, but not on the nozzle). In other words, team leaders have one foot in strategy – C.A.R.E. – and the other foot in task. Division and group supervisors must have both feet in strategy, outside of, but proximal to the hazard area.
Team members (firefighters) have a task-level focus that is very narrow. They are concentrating on a task-level activity such as aiming a hose stream or guiding the blade of a rotary saw. If the incident commander is wandering around the fireground, the strategic thread is severed. If the team leader lets the team separate, the strategic thread is severed. Here’s a synopsis of how it works – recall that the house fire operational mode had been declared “offensive from side A on floor 2.” These words convey the following information:
1. The main hazard area is on floor 2.
2. Teams will enter from side A.
3. Floor 1 has the most value.
4. The status of life safety is “unknown if occupied.”
5. “Unknown if occupied” means that compliance with the “two-in/two-out” rule is required and that life safety will be addressed with the tactical objective primary search (not search and rescue).
The Division A supervisor assigned Engine 54 “primary search from side A on floor 2.” The Division A supervisor (supervising no more than six teams) knows where each team is working and what each team is doing.
How To Maintain
Once achieved, maintaining tactical accountability is easy. Let’s say that Engine 54 is low on air and must withdraw before completing primary search. If the Division A supervisor is sharp, a couple of “exchange teams” will be hovering nearby, ready for assignment. Because the exchange teams are nearby, ready for assignment, the Division A supervisor won’t need to wait for a team to arrive from staging. (There’s no pause button on the fireground.) The supervisor removes Engine 54’s passport and plugs the passport of an exchange team onto the board. Let’s say Engine 33 is the exchange team. Engine 33 does a quick face-to-face with Engine 54 before proceeding to floor 2 and finishing the search. Engine 54 retrieves their passport and reports to staging for fresh air cylinders and rehab.
Engine 33 is tactically accounted for and Engine 54 is accounted for at staging. The staging area manager (or the incident commander if staging is still at the command post) records what time Engine 54 arrived at staging and obtains their passport. Engine 54’s passport is attached upside-down on the staging area status board. The upside-down passport indicates they are at staging, but not available for assignment. After hydrating and acquiring fresh air cylinders, the passport is turned right-side-up, which indicates the team is ready for assignment. Although simple and easy to maintain, this level of accountability is powerful and tight. Nobody falls through the cracks.
Using this system, the only opportunity a team has to freelance would be immediately after completing an assigned objective. For example, Engine 33 has completed the primary search on floor 2, the team leader surveys air gauges, determines the team has 50% air remaining, looks around, sees something shiny and decides the team should investigate. The moment Engine 33 goes to investigate, the strategic thread is severed and tactical accountability is lost. I guarantee the Division A supervisor does not want to own this situation. (If you were responsible for Engine 33, and you didn’t know where they were or what they were doing, how comfortable would you be?)
The remedy is simple: Company officers need to be front-loaded with expectations. One expectation discussed in part one is the team leader’s responsibility to C.A.R.E. for team members (personnel accountability); another expectation is that when your assignment is complete, you will notify whoever has your passport. This notification should include a general report of how much air the team has remaining, based on the team leader’s gauge or the member with the least air. The report would sound something like this: “Nothing found, 50. Recommend we investigate something shiny on floor 2.” The supervisor can then make a decision: “Affirmative, Engine 33. Investigate and report.” or “Negative, Engine 33. Withdraw.” (I recommend the latter; they will soon be low on air anyway.)
Did you notice that Engine 33 reported “Nothing found”? You may be wondering why Engine 33 did not report “primary search floor 2, nothing found.” The reason is simple: they don’t have to. Because Engine 33 was tactically accounted for, the Division A supervisor knows where they are and what they are doing. That adds even more value: Tactical accountability will help reduce radio traffic. Proactive use of passports will help control radio communications: you always talk to your passport. If you surrendered your passport to the Division A supervisor, “Division A” is who you will talk to on the radio. This ensures that resource span of control is always proportional to communication span of control. (Remember, the passport connects the strategic thread that assures operational congruity and enables tactical accountability.)
But wait, here’s even more added value: Personnel accountability is seamless and tight, yet nobody on the fireground is consciously doing personnel accountability. How is this possible? Again, it’s simple: Once Engine 54’s passport is “in the game,” and nobody has messed with the passport nametags, as Engine 54 migrates from place to place and assignment to assignment, member nametags “ride” the passport.
As discussed, the majority of the time, division and group supervisors are maintaining tactical accountability. However, should somebody need to know who the members of Engine 54 are, the supervisor merely glances at the passport and recites the nametags – including which member is the team leader (top nametag) and which member drove Engine 54 to the incident. For this to work there is one important caveat: When Engine 54 arrived at the scene, the team leader (company officer) initiated personnel accountability by ensuring that the nametags on the passport accurately showed the makeup of the team. For example, if the driver remained at the apparatus, the driver’s nametag is shown upside-down; if the driver accompanied the team as they reported for assignment, the driver’s nametag is turned right-side-up. In either case, the driver’s nametag is positioned directly below the team leader nametag. Because the passports and nametags are not heavy, this should not be a problem for a company officer. If it does become a problem, you may want to recalibrate your selection process.
Chasing tactics with strategy doesn’t work. Unless the first on-scene fire officer nails his or her strategic responsibility, the chase is on. Should the chief officer arrive after one or two companies are on scene and working, it is almost impossible to “herd the cats.” When tactics are underway and there is no command post, the arriving chief is placed in the uncomfortable position of attempting to chase the ongoing tactics with strategy. Compounding this problem is the pressure of additional companies approaching the scene: “We’re a block out. Where do you want us?” or “We’re approaching. What’s our assignment?” That is evidence of reactive incident management.
Often, fire departments will attempt to “herd the cats” with pre-assignments. Pre-assignments eventually morph into institutionalized freelancing. The chief officer merely observes the freelancing and awaits news of conditions and progress. The chief may have a general idea of what’s happening, but has no idea where people are at any given moment. One could ask why the chief needs to be there. Other times, the chief officer will function as a gatekeeper of freelancing: “Hey Chief, we’re going to go (fill in the tactical blank).” To which the gatekeeping chief replies: “Yeah, that’s a great idea, be safe!” Neither is evidence that an incident-specific action plan has been developed that is based on an incident-specific size-up.
For generations, the North American fire service has established a proud history and tradition of aggressive tactics. Too often, though, aggressive tactics occur before any strategy takes place. If you’re skeptical, read the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) firefighter line-of-duty-death investigation reports. NIOSH has been identifying the same contributing factors for more than a decade:
No action plan
Lack of tight accountability
Lack of team integrity
Span of control out of control
The time has come to establish an equally proud tradition of aggressive strategy. I believe that achieving and maintaining tactical accountability qualifies as aggressive strategy. (This article has been describing aggressive strategy.) The problem is that aggressive strategy is far more challenging than aggressive tactics. That is why we have an operational “mode” called “fast attack,” which is another way of saying no size-up, no water supply, no coordinated ventilation, no “two-out” standby team and no command post. In other words, “fast attack” is the stampede to aggressive tactics and the glaring omission of strategy.
The execution of aggressive tactics requires that firefighters have access to appropriate tactical tools. Likewise, the execution of aggressive strategy requires that fire officers have access to appropriate strategic tools. Access to the appropriate tools is not enough; just as firefighters must know how to use their tactical tools, fire officers must know how to use their strategic tools.
I have introduced a few of the strategic tools that make tactical accountability possible. Using these strategic tools will help make sure your firefighters are not caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time, for the wrong reason. Tactical accountability will help make sure that NIOSH doesn’t visit your fire station. (NIOSH doesn’t visit fire stations to award certificates of achievement.)
If your current “system” implementation lets teams freelance, you will one day announce on the radio: “Engine 54, where are you?” By embracing a structured and systematic process for doing “strategy,” you will be making a strong commitment to the goal that “Everyone Goes Home.”
Part three will:
1. Introduce the three levels of fireground freelancing.
2. Describe how to eliminate functional freelancing.
3. Describe how to eliminate geographic freelancing.
4. How to capture and account for volunteer firefighters.
5. Clarify the real difference between a division and a group.
• • •
IMS Alliance has produced a Passport Accountability System DVD featuring an introduction to Tactical Accountability and instructor-support documents, including cognitive and manipulative post-tests. See www.imsalliance.com.