Integrated Tactical Accountability

Jan. 24, 2011
  Part 1 – Introducing a Freelance-Prevention System That Works Let’s get right to the point: If your implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Incident Command System (ICS) does not help you achieve and maintain tactical accountability, your implementation “system” is flawed and incomplete.

Part 1 – Introducing a Freelance-Prevention System That Works

Let’s get right to the point: If your implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Incident Command System (ICS) does not help you achieve and maintain tactical accountability, your implementation “system” is flawed and incomplete.

You may remember the TV sitcom “Car 54, Where Are You?” which aired from 1961 to 1963 and later in reruns. The story line centered on the comical exploits of NYPD officers Gunther Toody and Francis Muldoon and their assigned cruiser, Car 54. Nobody in the fictitious 53rd Precinct ever seemed to know where Toody and Muldoon were or what they were doing. The lack of Car 54 accountability made for some good laughs.

The contemporary fire service has had a variety of personnel accountability systems in place for many years. Each of these systems can tell you who is at an incident; few accountability systems can tell you where each firefighter is at any given moment. Integrated Tactical Accountability will tell you who is there, where they are and what they are doing – not just some of the people some of the time, but all of the people all of the time. Integrated Tactical Accountability implementation means that freelancing can be prevented and thus should no longer be tolerated. Nobody will have to ask, “Engine 54, where are you?”

Putting It to Work

Tactical accountability can be achieved without batteries, without software and without expensive gee-whiz gadgets, and it will work at 3 o’clock in the morning. Achieving and maintaining tactical accountability is quick and easy and dovetails perfectly with the tenets of NIMS ICS and NFPA 1561. In fact, the Integrated Tactical Accountability system is the only implementation system in North America that offers how to meet or exceed all of the performance requirements identified by NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System (2008 edition).

To declare that your fire department has adopted and uses NIMS to manage an incident is not entirely true. NIMS may provide a familiar ICS framework for managing an incident (what’s old is new again), but NIMS fails to provide implementation guidance. Example: While it’s nice to know that a division is defined as geographic and a group is defined as functional, exactly how are you supposed to “supervise” a division or group during a multi-alarm fire? Shouldn’t a division be doing something functional within its geographic area of responsibility? Likewise, shouldn’t a group be executing its function someplace geographic? If they are both functional and geographic, what’s the true difference? (We will explore this question in a future article.)

How, and in what form, do group supervisors receive and supervise their pieces of the overall incident action plan? How do division supervisors achieve and maintain tactical accountability? When the incident commander or a branch director asks for a status report, what do the division or group supervisors report? These questions probe well beyond basic geographic and functional distinctions.

NIMS won’t help implement the ICS any more than the NFPA 1901 committee will submit a bid to build your next fire engine. NIMS was designed for what attorney and risk-management guru Gordon Graham refers to as “discretionary time” incidents. Discretionary means you have time to schedule a planning meeting for the next operational period. You don’t have the luxury of discretionary time when you are the first on-scene fire officer at a 3-o’clock-in-the-morning, multi-family building fire. The operational period is in your face.

Nobody is going to fill out ICS 201 and 203 forms in the front yard at a house fire, schedule a meeting and circulate copies of the plan to arriving companies. (Doing so would be trying to hammer a discretionary square peg into a non-discretionary round hole.) ICS planning forms are designed for long-term incidents that offer discretionary time. Integrated Tactical Accountability provides a structured and systematic process for the implementation of NIMS ICS and NFPA 1561 during in-your-face, non-discretionary time incidents – the kind of incidents that you respond to every day.

Standards and Mandates

Standards and mandates (NIMS is a federal mandate) provide guidance on what we should do, but they do not hint at how we should comply. Compliance and implementation is up to the “authority having jurisdiction” (AHJ). To address the spirit and intent of a particular standard or mandate is up to your organization or region. Consider the following citations from the 2008 edition of NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System:

4.5.2 The system shall maintain accountability for the location and status condition of each organizational element at the scene of the incident.

5.3.10 The incident commander shall maintain an awareness of the location and function of all companies or units at the scene of the incident. All supervisory personnel shall maintain a constant awareness of the position and function of all responders assigned to operate under their supervision. This awareness shall serve as the basic means of accountability that shall be required for operational safety.

Note the words I emphasized: locationcondition…function…position…basic. What these NFPA citations require as a “basic means of accountability” is that the incident commander and division/group supervisors shall maintain an awareness of the location/position and function of all companies, units and responders (personnel). Also notice that this basic means of accountability shall be required for operational safety. NFPA 1561 ventures well beyond mere personnel tracking. However, as mentioned previously, NFPA does not provide a hint at how to make sure this happens. The term I coined for maintaining this location and function awareness is “tactical accountability.” The structured and systematic process which assures seamless compliance is called Integrated Tactical Accountability.

“Accountability” Defined

There is a significant difference between personnel accountability and tactical accountability. In general, “accountability” is defined as a process for tracking personnel during an incident. According to NFPA 1561, personnel accountability is a system that “readily identifies both the location and function of all members operating at an incident scene.” (There are those pesky words again: location and function.) “Location” means more than knowing that there are eight companies on the fireground and that there are a bunch of firefighters somewhere in the building; location means you know from what side each team entered the building and on what floor each team is working. Tactical accountability means that you also know what each team is doing and why. Again, if freelancing is tolerated, it is impossible to achieve and maintain tactical accountability.

To ensure that the tenets of NFPA 1561 – and NIMS ICS – are addressed, two levels of accountability are needed: personnel and tactical. The only way this can be achieved and maintained is by aggressive span-of-control management. More than anything else, the ICS is a span-of-control, resource-management system. Consider the following NFPA 1561 citations:

5.1.6 The command structure for each incident shall maintain an effective supervisory span of control at each level of the organization.

A.5.1.6 A span of control of responders between three and seven is considered desirable most cases.

5.3.12 The incident commander shall initiate an accountability and inventory worksheet at the beginning of operations and shall maintain that system throughout operations.

Note the conflict within these citations. For example, a span of control of three to seven is considered ideal, yet the incident commander is supposed to initiate – and maintain – an accountability and inventory worksheet throughout the incident. This is silly; imagine an incident commander fiddling with this worksheet throughout a multi-alarm incident. How can the incident commander maintain this inventory worksheet of all resources and maintain the ideal span of control at the command post? Not only does this violate fundamental ICS span of control, it doesn’t work. This is one reason why many fire departments choose to dump resource tracking responsibility on somebody else, this person is often called an “accountability officer.” Here’s a hint: The presence of an “accountability officer” is a reliable indicator that, first, the fire department has not integrated accountability into the Incident Command System, and, second, it does not know how to achieve and maintain tactical accountability (or, in many cases, is not aware that it should).

The good news is that there has always been an ICS position with unlimited span of control and whose responsibility it is to track resources: the staging area manager. It’s no surprise that NFPA 1561 advises that resources should check in with the staging area manager. Considering that advice, guess which ICS position fire departments should assign to assist the incident commander with resource tracking? The bad news is that resource tracking is not tactical accountability.

Staging provides non-hazard-area personnel accountability; the staging area manager can quickly tell you where Engine 54 was sent (not where it is) and what time it left staging. (“Engine 54 was sent to Division 6 at 1530 hours.”) Notice that staging does not know where Engine 54 is at any given moment; all staging knows is what time Engine 54 left the staging area and where it was going. Something important is missing that opens an accountability gap: Where is Engine 54 and what are those firefighters doing right now? Only two people know this: the Division 6 supervisor and Engine 54’s team leader (team leaders are usually company officers). This resource management gap is filled with tactical accountability.

Personnel Accountability

In and around the immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) area, team leaders are responsible for their team members and, as mentioned, that is the essence of personnel accountability. It is important that team leaders (usually company officers) know that they are responsible for doing personnel accountability. An important expectation of this responsibility is that team leaders “C.A.R.E.” for their team members. The acronym C.A.R.E. represents:





For example, since Engine 54’s assignment was to evacuate floor 7. The responsibility Engine 54’s team leader would be to monitor:

Conditions – In particular visibility, temperature, hidden fire (voids, behind doors, etc.) and structural eccentricity.

Air – Enough self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) air supply to ensure that the team can withdraw to a safe position before low-air alarms are sounding.

Radio – Monitor the radio for orders to withdraw or abandon, emergency traffic, requests for status reports, etc.

Egress – Identify alternate egress routes and, should no alternate egress route exist, pay close attention to conditions behind the team.

Because personnel accountability in and around the hazard area requires that team leaders C.A.R.E. for their assigned team members, a team leader should never be on the nozzle, on a chainsaw or on the business end of any other task-level tool. Operating nozzles and saws is the work of firefighters. A fire officer operating a nozzle has the narrow, task-level focus of a firefighter and cannot C.A.R.E. for the team. (Ever try to monitor a portable radio while operating a chain saw?) The responsibility of a company officer is not to seek opportunities for tactical entertainment. Make sure your fire officers know what they are responsible for and understand the expectations that accompany this responsibility.

In case you missed it, the real nugget here is that team leaders are responsible for doing personnel accountability, particularly in and around the hazard area. They are the only people that can do it. Think about it: How could an accountability officer, the incident commander or some gee-whiz gadget C.A.R.E. for team members operating in the hazard area?

Tactical Accountability

Tactical accountability has three basic elements: who, what and where. Returning to Engine 54: “Engine 54 left staging at 1530 hours, proceeded to floor 6 and reported to the Division 6 supervisor for assignment.” After conveying Engine 54’s objective and work location (face to face!), the Division 6 supervisor knows what Engine 54 is doing (function) and where the members are working (location):

Who Engine 54

What Primary search

Where Floor 7

Engine 54 transitioned from the staging area manager’s span of control to the span of control of the Division 6 supervisor. There are four members assigned to Engine 54; thus, the span of control of Engine 54 is one to three – one team leader responsible for three team members. The Division 6 supervisor is supervising six teams, thus Division 6’s span of control is one to six. (According to the ICS, one-to-six span of control qualifies as “ideal.”)

Just like Engine 54, let’s say that each of the six teams being supervised by Division 6 has three members, each with one team leader leading two team members. If the Division 6 supervisor was doing “personnel accountability,” the Division 6 span of control would be one to 18 – well beyond three to seven.

Here’s a big accountability nugget: Division 6 is doing tactical accountability of six teams; the six team leaders are doing personnel accountability of their team members. (That last statement is important; I suggest you read it again.) Division 6 can tell you what Engine 54 is doing and where the members are working; however, the Division 6 supervisor has no idea whether all members of Engine 54 are together, whether each member is OK, how much remaining air the team has, what conditions are around them and the progress of their assigned objective. One person does know: the Engine 54 team leader.

Final Thoughts

You are the incident commander and “managing” an incident using NIMS ICS. You are directed by NFPA 1561 (and common sense) to maintain an awareness of who is there, where they are and what they are doing. This awareness means all of the people all of the time – no exceptions. Freelancing is prevented and forbidden. It doesn’t matter how big the incident or the number of alarms on scene; nobody is allowed to slip through strategic cracks in your system implementation.

Consider this from another angle: If you’re the incident commander and you can’t quickly identify where Engine 54 is and what those members are doing right now, you have a problem.

The Challenge

The purpose of this three-part series is to help you eliminate freelancing by achieving and maintaining tactical accountability.

Part one will:

1. Establish why tactical accountability is important.

2. Identify National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards that “require” that you achieve and maintain tactical accountability.

3. Introduce important distinctions between personnel accountability and tactical accountability.

4. Identify who is responsible for personnel accountability.

5. Identify who is responsible for tactical accountability.

Part two will:

1. Describe how to quickly achieve tactical accountability (using familiar strategic tools).

2. Describe how to maintain tactical accountability throughout the course of an incident.

3. Illustrate how to establish a “thread” that strategically connects the command post with a firefighter operating a nozzle within the hazard area.

Part three will:

1. Introduce the three levels of fireground freelancing.

2. Describe how to eliminate geographic freelancing.

3. Describe how to eliminate functional freelancing.

4. Clarify the real difference between a division and a group.

5. Introduce strategic tools for controlling the ebb and flow of incident resources.

MARK EMERY, EFO, is a shift battalion chief with the Woodinville, WA, Fire & Life Safety District. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program and an NFA instructor specialist. Emery received a bachelor of arts degree from California State University at Long Beach and is a partner with Fire Command Seattle LLC in King County, WA. He may be contacted at [email protected] or access his website

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