Tracking Companies on the Fireground

Incident Command and Accountability have been buzz words for a long time. In some cases we've come a long way in improving the operations on the fireground - and in many cases we've only added to the chaos. Filling out the ICS organization chart and assigning everyone a name tag doesn't do much when a fireground emergency calls for an all-out search for missing firefighters. By incorporating a simple command (tactical) worksheet into everyday fireground operations, for the use of tracking fireground personnel and improving overall fireground communications, that all-out search just may have a positive result.

Textbook ICS usually results in an eloquent size-up of the non-fire building. When heavy fire is showing the size-up and company assignments are usually in some abbreviated code - or non-existent. From that point on everyone is working to bring the fire under control - that's their job! What happens next, when a ranking officer or chief officer takes over the command role, has a major impact on the success or failure of any firefighter emergency situations that may arise.

A command worksheet is simply a tool that can aid in tracking the information that's needed. A good trait of a well-trained department is that arriving companies go to work when they get there. Many times this initial deployment is based on department SOPs. If the initial unit establishing command is in attack or mobile mode then it becomes very difficult to keep track of all companies. As soon as a stationary command is established a priority is locating existing crews in the fire building.

Location is Critical

Accountability is going to make a difference when something goes wrong, not when everything goes smooth! When a firefighter is lost, trapped or injured we need to know, as close as possible, where he is or where he was when things went wrong.

Consider the operation of most accountability systems, individuals 'log' into the system by either giving their tag to the company officer, placing their tag somewhere on the apparatus, or simply leaving their tag somewhere on their gear. When a response occurs, in many cases, that's the end of basic accountability. Many departments have added the next phase which is that somebody will collect tags if things escalate. Isn't that like saying when we find out that we need more water we'll go and get it?

Tracking firefighters during an actual incident is a labor-intensive task. Somebody needs to know who's there, who they are with, and where they were sent. After that, both the company and individuals, have to communicate where they're going - if they leave the assignment area.

The Worksheet

There are many commercial tactical worksheets available. Another source for examples is past magazine articles and/or textbooks. Sometimes the simplest means of putting a worksheet into operation in your department is by developing your own. Many things can be put on the worksheet such as safety considerations, water supply issues, wind, weather, utility control, major tactical objectives or benchmarks, etc., but two essential pieces of information are company assignments (attack, backup, search, ventilation...) and crew locations.

Assignments...

Tracking assignments should be relatively easy, when the assignment is made write the company name down on the worksheet next to the assignment. Easy, right? Too many departments have been lulled into believing that the incident is routine and that there's no need to get so detailed. The order of arrival, or assignment, is also an important piece of information. When multiple companies are assigned to perform certain tasks they should be relieved in an appropriate order - that is, first-in first-out. If there's no means of tracking who went in first then how is it possible to relieve the most needed companies.

Locations...

This requires a knowledge of the fire building, the interior conditions, and effective fireground communication (by the IC and the interior units). Nobody likes tracking firefighters in the building because it's difficult to communicate, it takes time, it's confusing - at best, and there's information overload at the outset - but that's when an accurate tracking mechanism is needed the most.

Knowledge of the Fire Building

Interior Conditions
Are companies meeting their objectives? Are the conditions improving or getting worse inside? Are crews having difficulty finding the fire, occupants? Are crews moving from area to area in an attempt to gain control? Is that information being reported? The main objective is successfully finishing the assignment - that requires fast action with as few distractions as possible. Changes in interior conditions, including location changes within the structure, should be considered essential pieces of information that must be relayed to the IC.

Effective (not Excessive) Communication
Communication is a critical step in tracking firefighters on the fireground. There are some interesting ideas and prototypes being tested to track firefighter locations within a building - unfortunately they are not online and ready to be used. The only current way to track firefighters in a structure is through effective communication.

Company assignments should be acknowledged when received. Some assignments will have interior locations and some won't. For those that do, such as search of the second floor, the company should communicate any deviation in the location. For assignments that don't have an interior location then the company should communicate initial and changing locations while inside the structure. For example, when a company is assigned Attack with an unknown fire location they should communicate progress inside the structure. A simple transmission such as: Command from Engine 1, fire extinguished first floor rear - checking for extension will help to pinpoint the company location should an emergency situation develop.

Taking the Next Step

Review your departments current accountability system, with a special emphasis on fireground location, company movement, and fireground communication.

Consider the last working incident you were on - more importantly think about your next response - after about 5 minutes of aggressive initial operations would the people outside know where you were? Do you keep a constant awareness of where you are and where the closest exit is? If you were on a later arriving unit that was asked to help get an injured firefighter out how long would it take you to get to him?

Discipline

Discipline is what it takes to relay your location while operating inside a structure. Major changes are what's important - first floor, second floor, basement, attic, a-side, b-side, c-side, etc. Without the proper information, no matter how skilled the RIT is, they still need to search the entire route before they get to you!

Fireground Location

From a firefighters standpoint - develop the discipline needed to have an awareness of your location when you're operating inside. Begin to slow down the adrenaline by forcing yourself to consider an emergency exit and how you might accomplish it. Communicate with your company officer and with the members of your company so that an awareness of location becomes second-nature. How? Practice. Train. Think about it.

From a Company Officers standpoint - consider the initial assignment and perform a pre-entry size up with your crew. Remember your role and the responsibility you have for the crew. Keep track of your people. Communicate with the crew and with command. If you're on the move inside then make sure to communicate your new location - don't assume somebody else knows!

From the Incident Commanders standpoint - know where your people are! It's just not enough to know that you have a system that will tell you who's there if something goes wrong. How many ICs are actually using an incident worksheet? Does it track the location - or at least the assigned location - of the companies? If you need more help then get some! If the companies are capable then let them handle the problem inside and concentrate on taking care of them.

Keys to Basic Company Tracking on the Fireground

  • Know your responding units
  • Make assignments - and track on a command board or worksheet
  • Know where the units will be performing the assignments
  • Keep track of time in the structure and order of entry (if possible)
  • Require units to communicate major changes in location (floors, buildings, ...)
  • Require units to give progress reports on assignments and interior conditions

If a MAYDAY is announced the value of this information will be evident immediately - don't wait for the emergency to figure it out!

Training Sessions for Tracking Companies

Respond to a simulated structure fire within the response district (use a training building, acquired structure or any other appropriate facility). Whether assignments are made by the first due officer, or initial actions are based on SOP's, let the companies go to work.

Command responsibilities:

Crew responsibilities: Respond to requests by Command and provide updates regarding changes in location inside the structure.

Conduct scenarios for both commercial and residential occupancies.

Responding to a MAYDAY

Now that everyone has had a chance to work on fireground communication and command worksheets, let's put it to the test.

Respond to an incident and go to work. Give the IC a couple of minutes to get things organized and issue a MAYDAY for a crew down. The IC should deploy the RIT to rescue the downed firefighters. Was the location of the crew known? Was it accurate? Did Command know where companies were operating? Did inside companies accurately report location changes? How can you improve?


Jim McCormack has been a firefighter for 15 years and is currently with the Indianapolis Fire Department. Jim is also the founder and president of the Fire Department Training Network, a membership network dedicated to firefighter training.

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