"Real Accountability"

Accountability is a term that has several different meanings to us in the fire service and it is something that we should all have an absolute understanding of. When I am out making a presentation on firefighter survival, I often ask the people in the audience just what accountability is. I get lots of different answers. It seems chief officers think accountability is one thing and company officers often think it is something else. None of them are wrong, because accountability is more than just one idea or activity.

So what is "accountability"? Let's take a look at this important firefighter survival concept.

I know lots of us have and use accountability systems. These are great tools for the incident commander to keep track of the companies and personnel that are deployed into a burning building or other hazard area. Sometimes, when we have a firefighter lost or injured, we conduct a roll call or personnel accountability report (PAR) to account for the crews we have inside the hazard area. This too is an accountability function that helps us provide for the safety and survival of our firefighters. Both of these accountability concepts are good, positive activities that we use to keep our people safe and alive. But the title of this column is "Real Accountability" and that is what we are going to talk about now.

"Real accountability" is a collection of skills and abilities that firefighters in general and company officers in particular possess. Please make sure you understand this first single idea. "Real accountability" is the company officer's job! Yes, we are all responsible to stay awake and know where we are and watch out for our fellow firefighters, but it is the company officers' job, it is their duty to account for, watch over and provide for the safety of their crews. If you disagree with this concept, you are 1. Wrong. 2. Not a good officer.

Now that we are all on the same page, let's look at the specific skills and abilities officers need to keep their crews safe.

  • Manual contact — This is the ability of the company officer to keep firefighters within arm's reach while operating in zero visibility in dangerous atmospheres. Yes, you must be able to keep track of the one or two other people who are crawling into the house with you to find the fire or the trapped occupants. You must be able to quickly reach out and touch them, or pull them or push them in the direction in which you want them to move. If you have two firefighters with you, then you must know where all three of you are all the time. This is not easy. Oh, and you still must be looking for the fire and ventilating and maybe even dragging an unconscious civilian while keeping track of and staying in physical contact with your people.
  • Tactical assignments — These are the jobs you assign to your crew. You may send a firefighter into a room across the hall from where you are searching. No, you cannot be in physical contact with this firefighter now, but if the tactical assignment is valid and the firefighter has been trained to conduct it, then he or she is operating in a safe manner and without any other unexpected event occurring; they are still accounted for. If you assign your people to perform tactics that you have not trained them to perform, you are doing them a great disservice and, more importantly, you have lost accountability for them even before they encounter any difficulty.
  • Radio contact — Every firefighter who enters a burning building should be radio equipped. This is not an idea, it is a fact! If you disagree, you are a fool; if you are also the chief, you are a criminal. Nobody should be allowed into a burning structure without a radio.

What can you do with a radio that relates to accountability? A company officer who deploys any firefighter to a remote location (away from the officer) must use the radio to maintain contact with that firefighter and assure his or her safety and survival. You must intermittently contact your people and ask them how they are doing with their assignment. Don't call them and ask, "Are you OK?" Just ask them how they are making out on the roof or in the rear yard. Their answer and tone of voice will tell you how they are doing. If conditions dictate, you can withdraw your remote people with a single radio transmission.

These three fairly basic skills are enough to keep most company officers busy from the moment they arrive at a structural fire until they exit the building. We have not even mentioned the assignment that you and your crew were sent in to accomplish. Keep your crew and yourself well versed in these three vital fireground skills and you will suddenly find yourself practicing "real accountability."

JOHN J. SALKA JR., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 28-year veteran battalion chief with FDNY, the commander of the 18th battalion in the Bronx. Salka has instructed at several FDNY training programs, including the department's Probationary Firefighters School, Captains Management Program and Battalion Chiefs Command Course. He conducts training programs at national and local conferences and has been recognized for his firefighter survival course "Get Out Alive." Salka co-authored the FDNY Engine Company Operations manual and wrote the book First In, Last Out — Leadership Lessons From the New York Fire Department. He also operates Fire Command Training (www.firecommandtraining.com), a New York-based fire service training and consulting firm.