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Choosing an Accountability System

When choosing an accountability system for your department there are many things that must be taken into consideration.

When choosing an accountability system for your department there are many things that must be taken into consideration. The system must fit into the operations of your department without becoming too complicated. Accountability cannot be a burden to the ones operating it or the ones being accounted for. If it is, your department will be less likely to use it correctly or even at all.

Cost is also a major factor for many departments. I have seen many "so-called" accountability systems that rely purely on electronics and computers to tell you where your people are. My thought is that these are great tools to assist you if you have an effective system in place, and can afford them, of course you must always deal with the possibility of a total system crash. We all know that when dealing with batteries they can fail, possibly when you need them most. Personally I have seen electronic systems fail during scenes leaving the accountability officer scrambling for a pen and paper while teams are operating in a burning structure. When my people's lives are on the line, this is not acceptable to me. The Accountability officer also lost all of the information that he had saved including exactly where his teams were. On the manual system that I use if my pencil quits writing, for whatever reason, I simply grab another one. The information is not lost, neither are my team's locations. I'm not saying that there is no place for electronics in accountability; I'm simply stating that in my ten years as an accountability officer, a manual system has always fit into my departments operational requirements.

Accountability should never tie up communications with unnecessary radio traffic. I mentioned in previous articles that we use the PAR system to accomplish this. If done properly, I can usually account for all personnel operating on the scene of an incident within 20 seconds. Keeping in mind that my PAR checks are done every 20 to 30 minutes, we don't find that to be a problem.

Compatibility with mutual aid agencies also needs to be a concern. I am often asked the question of what to do when mutual aid agencies simply will not do accountability. My advice is that until some detailed standards are set and enforced across the nation on what guidelines need to be followed for accountability, each department has to take care of themselves. Find a system that works for your situations and encourage other departments in your area to do the same. In the volunteer fire service my observations are that open dialogue must first be established between agencies, leaving the attitudes at the door. All too often I see bad feelings that have been harbored for generations. More often than not misunderstandings occurred so long ago that no one really remembers why they were mad at each other.

These feuds are sometimes what keep us from working together. Open dialogue must extend beyond the firefighting community, to EMS, Police, HAZ/MAT teams, public utilities, anyone who might assist in an emergency. We must learn to work together by training together, this is how we will become familiar with how each other operates, and set standards for things like accountability. I am sure that we will become more accustomed to this through using the National Incident Management System or NIMS.

Accountability systems can vary from agency to agency. I feel they need to be compatible with each other. Regardless of what system they are using, basic guidelines should be followed that would allow compatibility with all agencies responding. This can best be accomplished by training together and sharing information with all mutual aid agencies.

The first step is for everyone involved to realize the importance of having some form of accountability. Time and time again I have seen departments that refuse to use accountability. Too many times I have heard the statement, "We've never used an accountability system, and nothing has happened yet. Why start now?" There is no place in the fire service for statements like this. I have also heard, when talking to chiefs who recently have had a line of duty death say "I never thought it would happen here." The bottom line is, the leadership is responsible to set and enforce policies to insure the safety of all who respond. The chief is the one who must knock at the door and say that your loved one is not coming home. However, the responsibility does not end there. Each and every person needs to make sure that no matter what happens, somebody knows where you are. If I am lying in a building after something catastrophic has happened, I would hope that somebody outside knows where I am. Accountability can accomplish this. As an accountability officer, I have no say so in terms of fire tactics. My only job is to know where everyone is at all times. Without the cooperation of my entire department, this would not be possible.

Strict policies on operating in teams and good communications with team leaders are major components of an effective accountability system. National standards set by organizations like NFPA and NIMS address accountability, these standards are a great start. It is up to us to take the ball and run with it, by setting good policies now before something happens, and sticking to them. Speak to your educators, and leaders of other agencies, find out what is out there. Find out what works for them, and what doesn't. Talk to people who actually DO accountability, not just salesmen who have never actually accounted for people during an incident.