Evolved from Individuals: Are We Freelancing Companies?

With the promulgation of 29CFR 1910.134 and NFPA 1500 describing the need for firefighters to work in teams of at least two while in an immediately dangerous to life and health environment (IDLH), the United States fire service has made great strides in reducing freelancing on the fire ground.

It is now routinely accepted and expected that crews on the scene of fire emergencies will utilize the buddy system. However, have we evolved from individual freelancing to freelancing by companies?

The intent of "buddy system" is to have one team member watching out for the other and to affect an immediate rescue if needed. This concept has been indelibly etched into the brains of every recruit firefighter for the last ten years - if not longer. The idea of the buddy system has been pushed forward over the last five plus years through the concepts of "two-in, two-out", which is part of the 29CFR 1910.134 Rule. Our on-scene incident commanders have now become accustomed to the idea that their personnel will utilize this team approach. We are employing accountability systems, some quite elaborate, to track our personnel - as teams. This practice seems to be working in keeping crews together on the fire ground. All fire service members should keep this trend of teamwork and accountability moving in the right direction.

As we become more proficient and accepting of the buddy system, and individual freelancing is minimized, we need to keep our eyes on the growing trend of company freelancing. This can best be described as the free roaming movement of a team or of a company within the IDLH. To understand the concept of company freelancing, a brief review of the basic initial decision making process in the incident management system (IMS) is ordered.

Within the IMS, the incident commander (IC) develops strategy based on his/her size-up of problems. After a proper size-up and selection of strategic goals, the working companies are given their duties through the transmission of tactical objectives. Most of the emergencies we handle can be managed by a straightforward strategy and tactic package. One or more companies carry out task assignments, the incident gets better and all parties go home.

We begin to notice company freelancing when the incident grows in size requiring more than one operational unit to be assigned to a work area or problem. The IC frequently becomes a contributing agent to the company freelancers through unclear directions. For example, "Command to Engine 1, give them a hand on the second floor." Because of the vagueness of the assignment (assist who? do what? report to whom?), the prescription has just been written for a company freelance job. The final ingredient is the working unit or company that jumps on this opportunity to work at their own discretion.

The biggest impact that company freelancing has can be found in the accountability system. Completing an accurate personnel accountability report (PAR) is contingent on the company officer being able to account for all members under his/her watch while in the IDLH. Most PAR checks require the unit/company to identify their location and number of team members. Example - "Engine 1 is PAR 3 on the 2nd floor." While this report would satisfy the accountability officers needs, it does not truly relate the facts of that working company. This PAR reply does not verify that Engine 1 is indeed working towards a common tactical objective as vaguely identified by the IC. Due to the initial assignment of a nondescriptive job, the proverbial box has been opened for Engine 1 to freelance - that is, find or identify work on their own.

Company freelancing is a problem that is seen throughout the fire service. It is not the intention of many of these officers to freelance their units, but the results of poor assignment orders and a team ready to get the job done. This type of behavior ultimately affects the safety of the operating crew as well as all members working on the scene.