Firefighter Accountability: Critical in Reducing America's LODDs

It has been amazing to watch the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) grow and change into perhaps the best agency preventing firefighter line-of-duty death and injury.

When Executive Director Chief Ronald Siarnicki and Chairman Hal Bruno announced that the NFFF would begin to take on the responsibility of being a national voice regarding firefighter health and safety issues, my first thought was, "Just what we need, another group to claim that they were the answer to our problems and have no real impact." Boy, do I have to eat those words! In just a few short years, Chief Siarnicki and the NFFF have made tremendous progress in showing the fire-rescue service in this nation how to change to a safety-focused culture, making sure that "Everyone Goes Home."

This journey began in Tampa, FL, at the first National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Firefighter Life Safety Summit in March 2004. This would be like no other program that I have attended before or since. The energy in the room, coupled with the talent, was a tremendous setting to get started on a journey to curb firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) by 25% in the first few years, followed by sharper declines in years to follow. Although the goal of fewer LODDs has not materialized as of yet, it is my strong belief that the numbers are bound to get lower based on the work of this great foundation. As the Tampa summit ended, J. Gordon Routley, Adam Thiel and Kevin Roche had the responsibility of putting this tremendous amount of information (prepared by over 200 attendees) to paper in a usable and understandable format. The notion of the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives was instituted. This article will explore Initiative 2: Enhance the personal accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service.

IDLH Zones

When you consider that firefighters are required to work in immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) hazard zones every day, the need for a high level of personal accountability and crew integrity is obvious. There are four questions that must be asked and answered at every response event that involves placing our folks into IDLH environments. The questions are simple, straightforward and easy to understand. However, by the very nature of what we do and how we do it, effective accountability is difficult to achieve and maintain. Companies are engaging at various tactical positions — hopefully as part of the operational standard operating procedure (SOP) — and the incident scene being so fluid (ever changing) it makes keeping track of everyone a real chore.

Mandatory Questions

The first element of firefighter accountability is to know who the members operating in IDLH environments are by name and if possible by image (picture) as well. There are several great accountability systems on the market and other "local variations," but all systems must incorporate the name (identity) of the members being tracked. Some systems incorporate basic personal information with the personal identifiers such as blood type, religion and relative contact information. Regardless of whether the system you use is a passport, picture or tag, the accurate identity of the members being tracked is a critical component of the process.

The next question is, "Where are the members located in the building or at the IDLH risk hazards area?" In many cases, the incident command team (incident commander, deputy incident commander, safety officer and accountability officer) may need to narrow down the location where the member is located. For instance, if your members are located on the fifth floor of a sprawling high-rise, the need quickly arises to identify which section, quadrant or area they are working in. The concept of knowing where your members are operating becomes critical if the need arises to provide them assistance or support to effect their safe removal. If a Mayday is transmitted, the command team has an accurate anchor point to start the firefighter search and removal process.

The next component is important from several standpoints. Knowing "what actions are being taken" will not only help with hazard zone accountability, but will help guide and direct your Incident Action Plan (IAP). So, this question is mission critical on several levels: accountability, command and control. Putting this step into action might look like this: If a company on the first floor transmits a Mayday, companies operating above that position would need to be advised of the Mayday call and most likely removed if the crew in trouble is removed. Obviously, the protection that the first floor (Division 1) was providing would be removed causing adjustments above.

The last of the $64,000 questions is, "Under what conditions are the crews working?" Keeping a clear frame of mind about what hazards are facing your companies is imperative. Once again, this information is used in several ways. When members go into action, it is easy for them to lose sight of time, place and hazard. I have seen companies work at trench rescues until exhaustion sets in and they must be assisted out of the IDLH zone to the rehabilitation area only to realize that the temperature and humidity exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The stability of the area in which operations are taking place is a critical factor as well. Often times in urban settings, the building has been previously on fire or has been abandoned and derelict for years. Understanding the degree to which the building has been compromised and watching the indicators of potential building collapse all fall under the list of duties and responsibilities that the command team must address early and throughout IDLH operations.

Summing Up

Firefighter accountability and crew/team integrity (go in together, stay together and come out together) is huge in providing for the health, safety and welfare of all of your members. Next, command teams (led by a single, well-supported incident commander) must always be able to answer four mission-critical questions from entry to exit of all members in the IDLH zones:

  1. WHO (by name) are the members operating in the hazard zone?
  2. WHERE (exactly or as close as achievable) are the members operating at in the hazard zone?
  3. WHAT ACTIVITIES are the members and/or companies engaged in at all times? Remember the ripple effect of removing operating companies at an incident and then adjust your IAP accordingly.
  4. KNOW THE CONDITIONS of the environment and the building. Is it likely to collapse? Is the container likely to explode? Again, mission-critical factors that must be considered when placing your folks in danger.

The last thought for this article is that the department/agency must have an accountability system, regardless of the type. All members must be trained and proficient in its use and application. In concert with an accountability system, there must be a person to manage the process from the start of the event until its conclusion. I hope that this short snapshot has provided you with some "food for thought" as you and your department go about implementing all 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives.

I would like to personally thank the many members of the Everyone Goes Home program team for their tireless efforts in striving to reduce firefighter injuries and line-of-duty deaths. Program Manager Rich Marinucci and Advocate Manager Billy D. Hayes, as well as all of the team members, should be congratulated for making a difference despite what the numbers may indicate. Keep up the great work!

Until next time, be safe out there!

DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Previously, Rubin was chief of the Atlanta, GA, Fire and Rescue Department. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from the University of Maryland and an associate in applied science degree in fire science management from Northern Virginia Community College, and is enrolled in the Fire and Emergency Management Administration program at the graduate school of Oklahoma State University. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program, is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and has obtained the Chief Fire Officer (CFO) designation from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy since 1983. Rubin is the author of the book Rube's Rules for Survival.