Accountability On The Fireground

Robert Cobb outlines ways in which departments keep track of members at fire scenes.


Last year, an urban New Jersey fire department responded to a building fire at about 10:30 on a Thursday morning. Before the incident came to a close, firefighters faced some harsh realities about fireground accountability. The building was a four-story brick apartment house located on a corner...


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Last year, an urban New Jersey fire department responded to a building fire at about 10:30 on a Thursday morning. Before the incident came to a close, firefighters faced some harsh realities about fireground accountability. The building was a four-story brick apartment house located on a corner. Heavy smoke was pushing from the top floor, and several people were exiting through windows onto a fire escape. The occupants were removed and an interior attack was started on the top floor.

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Photo by Lawrence R. DiCamillo
Firefighters advance a handline into the garage of a well-involved house in Fresno, TX. Such interior operations call for the use of a fireground accountability system.

Unknown to the firefighters, the fire was raging in the rear of a first-floor store, as well as in an old dumbwaiter shaft that had been covered over. The store was completely sealed by roll-up doors and windows. The building had seen many renovations, and at least one cast-iron column had been rendered ineffective by the changes. The fire quickly reached three alarms with 14 companies and more than 55 members working at the scene. The chief in charge of the vent group on the roof ordered all members off the roof due to heavy fire. Soon after, the incident commander (IC) ordered an evacuation of the building because conditions had deteriorated rapidly, the strategy would now be to turn to an outside operation. During the change from offensive to defensive mode, a major collapse occurred.

No accountability system was being practiced in this city. It took 20 minutes to determine that everyone was out of the fire building and the surrounding area, and that two injuries had been caused by the collapse, both on the perimeter. During that time, two companies were assigned the dangerous task of searching the rubble on side B until all members could be accounted for.

When searching for and rescuing trapped firefighters, time is of the essence. Most of the time, members who are trapped or lost in a building have less than a full tank of air; if it takes you 10 or 15 minutes to determine who is missing and where they are, you may be too late. There is a need for a strong fireground accountability system and a well-practiced rescue plan.

Each year, nearly 100 firefighters are killed in the line of duty and an additional 100,000 are injured. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) found that over a 10-year period, 34 of 134 firefighter deaths (not related to heart attacks) were directly linked to a failure to account for firefighters on the fireground.

There are some basic reasons to use a fireground accountability system (FAS). Our top priority should be to reduce firefighter deaths and injuries. A well-designed accountability system can accomplish both by strengthening the incident command and control system.

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Photo by Robert Cobb
This volunteer fire department uses a single-tag method. The tag identifies the department and member's badge number.


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Photo by Robert Cobb
The tag in this volunteer department's single-tag system is left on the apparatus after arrival at the incident.


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Photo by Robert Cobb
As the incident escalates, an accountability officer is assigned. The firefighter accountability roster is used to track members.

A second reason to use a fireground accountability system is to conform to NFPA standards and to laws and government regulations. Specific regulations are in place for accountability during self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) operations and for confined space entry. NFPA Standard 6-3.1 reads, in part, "The fire department shall establish standard operating procedures for a personnel accountability system in accordance with section 4-3 of NFPA 1561, Standard on Fire Department Incident Management System, and that provides for the tracking and inventory of all members operating at an emergency incident."

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Photo by Robert Cobb
This career fire department begins accountability in the firehouse. Radio assignments and functions are assigned at the beginning of the tour.
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