Accountability? It’s Not Just a “Sector” Anymore

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This account is provided by a reader. Chief Goldfeder’s comments follow.

We received a 911 call for a building fire at a local inn. It is a 21¼2-story bar with apartments above. The caller, who was the building’s owner, advised that a wall heater was on fire. A member of a neighboring fire company who was drinking there had suggested that the owner call the fire department to check it out. As the owner was alerting the fire department, the firefighter from the neighboring company walked a half-block to our firehouse, where he asked a brand-new officer whose gear he could wear. The new officer, not sure what to do, told him to wear a fire engineer’s gear. The visiting firefighter then got on the first engine out with the officer. Another firefighter and two assistant chiefs were riding the engine and no one ever questioned who this person was, his training or anything. He donned SCBA as they arrived with smoke showing from the back of the building, where the heater is located. The senior assistant chief, who was supposed to be in charge of the call, exited the rig without donning SCBA. He never established command, never did a size-up and never gave a status; he just went inside with the engine crew to investigate. Still, no one knew who this mysterious firefighter was – and the assistant chief in charge didn’t even know he was there.

Once inside, the assistant chief found the fire had been extinguished and placed the incident under control. As they left the building and the person from the neighboring fire department was doffing his SCBA, a few of our firefighters realized that something was not right and started wondering who this guy was. Nevertheless, he rode back to the firehouse on the engine, put away the gear he used and left.

That’s when the questions started to fly. The other firefighters finally realized who this person was, that he belonged to a neighboring fire company and that he had no formal training. They soon find out that he had been at the bar drinking before walking to the firehouse and going on the call. The accountability system on this call was completely thrown out the window. Personnel accountability tags were never given to the officer riding the front seat. An untrained person under the influence of alcohol was allowed to ride on the call and then go inside, all geared and packed up. Even though smoke was visible from the firehouse, they never laid in from a hydrant and never pulled handlines or tools off the apparatus, among a number of things.

This call had potential as every call does and everything that we are taught was thrown out the window. I was disgusted by this call and it appears to me that nothing will come of it. The new officer was chastised by the chief for allowing this guy to come in the firehouse and use someone’s gear, but the assistant chief who was ultimately responsible for everybody took no responsibility. I felt compelled to share this “close call” because this could happen elsewhere and it is important for all of us to be aware of everything and everyone around us during a call.

These comments are based upon Chief Goldfeder’s observations and communication with the writer:

This month’s “close call” is a great example of a “true” close call from a leadership and operational standpoint. The issue of personnel accountability means something different to different people. In the firehouse, before the run, accountability is tied into tasks such as apparatus and equipment preparedness, training, facility upkeep, reports and related details that support the mission. Essentially, when we (career or volunteer) are not out on a run, we have specific assignments for which we are all responsible – segments that all make up the success or failure of the fire department. If we get our “portion” done, and everyone else does his or her part as well, then we are successful because we all took our responsibility to be accountable seriously.

If, however, one of us fails to be accountable in getting our “portion” done, the organization faces delays or problems. Sometimes, it’s no big deal, such as forgetting to clean a station bay window, but sometimes it is a real big deal, such as the driver forgetting to make sure there is water in the booster tank. The impact of us not being accountable is at the root of many of the problems we have at any of our fire departments – on a run or before the run.

Accountability and tracking are two terms that seem to get us a little confused. Sure, the sector known as accountability is responsible to track the troops on an emergency scene:

  • Who are they?
  • Where are they?
  • What are they doing?
  • What’s their progress?

Generally, we want to make sure they are doing their “portion” of what is needed on the emergency scene, and doing it safely – and when they are done, to determine what they do next. In some “schools of thought,” we are really establishing a tracking sector. Does it matter what we call it? I don’t think it does, except for the fact that whatever it is called, it simply must be known and understood by all operating, and be called the same thing all the time. In other words, “standardization” of terms so, for example, we know that side A is always side A, no matter what. Side A is generally the addressed side or the main street side of the building. Simple, easy and determined by the first unit. The first-arriving officer is to be held accountable (or responsible) to establish command and determine what the tactics are going to be Better yet, the tactics have been pre-planned and everyone understands how the situation is going to be handled.

Pre-planning accountability? Absolutely. Let’s forget about “drawn” or “computer-generated” pre-plans for a minute and look at “organizational pre-planning.”

Simply put, organizational pre-planning is taking a look at what could or might happen before a run, during a run and after a run to insure that the run is handled properly and everyone goes home safely. Organizational pre-planning allows the fire department to pre-determine what can be encountered enroute, when arriving, while operating, while taking up and while going home. It is much broader than a “traditional” pre-plan that looks at a building, as it helps us “predict” what may go wrong or right. Organizational pre-planning helps us look at “the big picture.”

Have you ever been at the firehouse and heard someone say:

  • “One of these days, someone is going to get hurt because of the way he drives” or...
  • “That fire company can never get their apparatus on the road quickly” or...
  • “Why don’t we ever do any training here?” or...
  • “She is acting really weird. Did you smell her breath?” or...
  • “I get nervous working with that crew...they just seem to do whatever they want to do on the fireground.”

We have all heard or said similar comments at one time or another. As much as any of those issues have to be dealt with, they are also the start of an opportunity to use organizational pre-planning (OP) to predict a problem and then address it.

“One of these days someone is going to get hurt because of the way he drives” is a clear predictor that someone is going to get hurt. OP can address it by looking at the adequacy of the driver training program, checking to make sure it is being delivered and that the officers are enforcing the safety related policies.

“That fire company can never get their apparatus on the road quickly” is generally related to a volunteer fire department’s turnout time. OP can address that issue “before the run” by looking at the statistics to determine whether turnout time is a problem. If it is taking a fire department too long to get on the road, solutions need to be laid out and selected – and “how long is too long?” also can be dealt with as a part of OP. National standards such as EMS-related patient care/survivability standards (for example, how long does it take someone who is bleeding or not breathing to die) make it clear how long we have to arrive on a scene in order to make a positive difference. The “ISO Guide to Fireflow,” available free at www.isomitigation.com, can be used similarly in determining how much water may be needed to handle a structure of any construction or size. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards can help determine how many people we need to arrive in order to accomplish the firefighting tasks safely. (See, this stuff can be figured out!)

“She is acting really weird. Did you smell her breath?” When a statement like that is made but then ignored, it is an indicator that either no officer wants to deal with the issue or that no policies or procedures are in place to properly and fairly manage that kind of not-so-rare issue. OP can allow the fire department to plan now for when it does happen.

In short, OP can help manage predictable risks to a point where if a problem occurs, “systems” and “leaders” are in place to reverse it or at least stop in from getting worse in many, many cases.

In this month’s specific “close call,” we see numerous examples of the failure of this fire department to do some organizational pre-planning. A visiting firefighter who had been drinking at a bar walks into the firehouse and asks an officer whose gear he can wear? “The new officer, not sure what to do” is an example of a fire department missing some clear policies, procedures and leadership addressing, as a start, who can respond on apparatus. Without it, the results are predictable. Questions of “Who trained that officer?” or “Did that officer even get any training?” are paramount. No officer training? Common, very common. In many areas, you could be riding the jumpseat today and be a chief officer tomorrow – and that’s not just at volunteer fire departments. Readers may think this is simple – how can any fire department allow these things to happen without a policy addressing it? Well, it happened and keeps happening.

“The visiting firefighter then got on the first engine out with the officer. Another firefighter and two assistant chiefs were riding the engine and no one ever questioned who this person was, his training or anything.” This is where “personal” accountability clearly comes in. With a lieutenant and two chief officers on the apparatus, someone should have been concerned about “whoever that guy is” getting on the apparatus – a clear example of no one being accountable. Why would any apparatus leave the station without the officer in charge knowing exactly who is on board (of his or her own crew, not to mention the “hitchhiker”), who is in what position, and that all are seated and belted?

The senior assistant chief who was in charge didn’t handle critical initial tasks such as establishing command and establishing accountability (tracking), but instead went inside (no tools, no pack, no water) with the engine crew to investigate. We could spend all day discussing the incident command system and how the various sectors can and do make a difference in firefighters being able to survive. Instead of me doing that, just read this magazine cover to cover. The use of an incident command or incident management system may be a pain for some, but it is proven and it works. Success simply requires fire officers to be open minded, to understand incident command, to apply it during training and to use it on every run with a desire to protect their firefighters.

What was the potential of this incident? “Personal accountability tags were never given to the officer riding the front seat. An untrained person under the influence of alcohol was allowed to ride on the call and then go inside, all geared and packed up. Even though smoke was visible from the firehouse, they never laid in from a hydrant and never pulled handlines or tools off the apparatus…”

Does anyone see the red error flags? In this case, you can’t even see the ground because there are so many red flags! This fire department was given a “free-pass” card. What’s a “free-pass” card? Simply put, we ignore all the rules, don’t do our jobs, take major risks and get away with it, surviving in spite of our failure to be accountable. We get away with it in spite of our failure to do organizational pre-planning and in spite of our failure, as fire officers to strictly and dictatorially enforce the rules on the fireground, specifically when it comes to our ability to survive. We just get lucky.

How can we minimize our chances of experiencing a “close call” or worse? By dealing with problems now. Instead of talking about what might go wrong or saying, “Phew! We got lucky and got away with it this time,” take the problems and nail them. Nail them as a part of organizational pre-planning by looking ahead as to what could go wrong, by looking at the protected risks in the community and objectively looking at how the fire department operates. Sometimes. what needs to change is very obvious; sometimes, it’s not. When it’s not, examples of what almost went wrong – or what did go wrong for other fire departments – are available through this column and others, as a start. Read the case studies described in Firehouse® and apply them to your fire department. Ask the question, “Can it happen here?” – in many cases, it can. The good news is that it didn’t happen yet. Don’t keep collecting “free-pass” cards because eventually they will run out.

Using organizational pre-planning to help identify areas that are lacking accountability to help “predict” the future gives us all a much better chance to make it home in one piece – or we can just hope for some “free-pass” cards.

Readers are asked to share their accounts of incidents in which firefighters found themselves in dangerous or life-threatening situations, with the intention of sharing the information and learning from one another to reduce injuries and deaths. These accounts, in the firefighters’ own words, can help others avoid similar “close calls.” We thank those firefighters who are willing to share their stories. We invite readers to share their experiences. We will not identify any individuals, departments or communities. Our only intention is to provide educational information and prevent future tragedies. We thank Contributing Editor William Goldfeder for compiling these reports. You may send your reports to him at chgold151@cinci.rr.com. William Goldfeder, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He is a battalion chief with the Loveland Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982 and has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Chief Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com.

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