Accountability On The Fireground

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.

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.

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

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

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."

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.

No fire department would purchase a fire truck costing $300,000 unless it met NFPA standards. Why not? Because of safety reasons and a fear of litigation if someone were to be injured riding on a "substandard apparatus." It could cost your department less than $1,000 to conform to the NFPA accountability standard a bargain in the long run.

A good fireground accountability system has common objectives. The most important objective should be the ability to immediately locate each firefighter on the fireground. Additionally, the accountability system must integrate itself into any existing incident command system and, ideally, be able to expand as an incident progresses. Although the IC is responsible overall, officers in charge of divisions, exposures and groups will track firefighters working in their areas.

Keys to a successful fireground accountability system. One key to successfully implementing a new standard operating procedure (SOP) is training. Too often, new ideas, general orders, SOPs and department policies are thrust upon us without us being told the "why" and "how."

Training should include not only how to use the system but why it is important. Training officers would do well to develop marketing skills to sell safety. Use the system at every incident until it becomes as routine as donning an air pack before entering a burning building.

Photo by Robert Cobb
A magnetic personnel riding card is used by this career fire department.

Photo by Robert Cobb
Each member is listed on a magnetic riding card. The "mag tag" remains on the apparatus. An assigned accountability person collects the tags as the incident progresses.

All members operating at an incident must actively participate in the accountability system. Accountability is everyone's responsibility. Firefighters must make sure they initiate the system on arrival. Turn in hardware at the appropriate accountability location; stay with your assigned crew and no freelancing.

Photo by Robert Cobb
This is single-tag system is used by a volunteer department.

Photo by Robert Cobb
The accountability tag is placed at the riding position. This accounts for the member and his or her function.

Another key to successful fireground accountability is the company officer. Regardless of the type of department, volunteer or career, the companies and crews working at the incident must have a supervisor to take charge. The company officer must know where each member of his or her team is operating at all times.

Photo by Robert Cobb
This combination department uses a double-tag system. One tag remains on the apparatus and the second tag is turned in prior to entering the fireground.

Photo by Robert Cobb
This system utilizes an apparatus ID tag with individual personnel tags. The ID ring can be collected as necessary. The accountability tags are color-coded by shift.

Photo by Robert Cobb
A pre-packaged ID tag encased in plastic includes name, ID number, date and medical information on the back.

Company integrity plays an important role in an accountability system. Whenever possible, companies should enter and exit together; teams should always exit together.

Photo by Robert Cobb
This accountability board tracks the unit, location, function and number of firefighters in the unit.

Also, the system should begin to track members at the point of entry. If the company is split into teams (such as truck company or rescue company, for example), each team must have a radio. In fact, more and more departments are equipping all on-duty members with portable radios.

Another key factor is the type of equipment to be used, such as ID tags and tracking boards. They should be simple to use and maintenance free.

Your accountability system should be compatible with those of other departments in your area. Your state, county or mutual aid association should have one system. A survey of 20 departments in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania showed that all use accountability systems but only five were compatible.

The FAS should have a method of making the IC aware when firefighters are missing. Radio guide-lines should be set up for units to report as assigned tasks are begun and completed.

Whenever operational modes change (from offensive to defensive, for example), all units should be accounted for. If necessary, a roll call of all companies should be taken. Moreover, the FAS should be easy to use and not hinder the initial fire attack.

How to adopt and implement the FAS. First, there must be a commitment from the top of the command chain. The chief of department and administrative leader must provide resources to support the program. Assemble a steering committee, utilizing members knowledgeable in your current incident command system. The committee should include personnel who are going to use the system; line officers, firefighters and members of every rank should be represented.

Photo by Robert Cobb
A simple and effective accountability system: the board is placed in front of the fire building and members place their tags on the board prior to entering.

The committee should analyze the accountability systems being used by surrounding departments don't reinvent the wheel if you don't have to. NFPA Standard 1561 also provides guidelines for the incident command system and personnel accountability. In addition, develop a written fireground accountability SOP. Once a system is chosen, it should be tested. Integrate the system into all drills and field training exercises. During initial training, all suggestions should be considered. The steering committee should continually evaluate the system over a period of time, perhaps three to six months, and make revisions where necessary.

Many accountability systems use tags, passport-style cards or bar-code scanners. The tag system utilizes a name tag attached to the firefighter by a metal clip or fabric fastener. The tag is turned in to a designated accountability officer/firefighter. One common tag system uses an ID card encased in plastic with picture, badge number and medical data.

A fire department in Pennsylvania uses a double-tag system. One tag remains on the apparatus to account for the member arriving on the scene and a second tag is turned in at the designated accountability location. Another accountability system utilizes a company "passport," a card about three-by-four inches and individual name tags. The name tags are fastened to the passports, which are handed in at the designated accountability location. Some SOPs call for the chief's aide or the closest pumper to become the accountability location. As the incident escalates, it may become necessary to assign someone to oversee the accountability tracking system.

Once the FAS is developed for your department, consider actions to be taken if a member is reported missing or lost. Radio procedures for reporting company/team status should be in place before implementing the FAS. The NFPA standard requires fire departments to provide personnel for the rescue of members. These personnel form a rapid intervention team or a firefighter assist and search team (FAST).

Time and time again, incident commanders have crossed their fingers and prayed that everyone got out. Unfortunately, their prayers were answered by the sound of a bagpipe band playing "Amazing Grace" in front of a church a couple of days later.

Robert Cobb is captain of Rescue Company 1 of the Jersey City, NJ, Fire Department and ex-chief of the Dumont, NJ, and West Milford Township, NJ, fire departments.