Fire Commentary: Teamwork in Accountability

By Tino A. Yaccich

Accountability is rapidly becoming an important part of every scene. More and more people realize the usefulness and importance of having a dedicated accountability officer on every incident scene. I am talking about having TRUE accountability of ALL personnel operating at the incident, not just those in the "hot zone" or in an IDLH (immediate danger to life and health) atmosphere, but everyone. Accountability is not only an incident commander's (IC) responsibility, but that of every member of the agency. Yes, although those in charge are responsible to set the policies, and our officers are responsible to ensure they are implemented, it is up to each and every one of us individually to ensure that we follow these policies every time.

Although it is not very difficult to persuade a chief that he should use an effective accountability system, it is a different story persuading every department member to do so. The leadership should simply declare, "This is the way we are going to do it," create and implement a standard operating guideline (SOG), and that should be the end of it.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. All too often, I hear the excuse, "We are just volunteers." Yes, you are a volunteer, and voluntarily walked through the door to join. But if you really want to be a member of this organization, you must abide by the rules and procedures it sets forth." End of story!

In my experience, I have seen accountability do many things for the agencies with which I have worked. First of all, everything is done in teams; when you are put on a team, you are that team's member for the entire incident. No more freelancing! It is proven that freelancing kills firefighters. If one team member needs air, the whole team goes for air, not just that one person. This is common sense.

We tell our children at a very young age that they cannot go swimming without a partner. Why in the world would we even think about entering one of the most dangerous environments we as human beings can face, alone?

A team may have just two members but should not exceed six members to maintain a manageable span of control. Teams of two to four work the best. For a larger team, it is a lot easier to combine two smaller teams than to make one large one. Remember, once a team is formed, it should not be split up, unless command determines the need to do so. Teams may be split in some situations; for example, when a member must leave the scene or if someone gets hurt. But this must be done through command and accountability.

If you make a team of six, it should remain team of six for the entire incident. If two teams of three are combined, once the assignment is done, there are still two three-man teams. Teams should be made up of members qualified to perform the assigned task. In our Allegheny Beaver Butler Emergency Team Rapid Intervention Team (ABBET-RIT) in western Pennsylvania, we have adopted a set of qualification stickers that are placed on firefighter's helmets in a predetermined location to assist in this. The chief issues these stickers to individual firefighters only after they have received the proper training, and have demonstrated at in-house training that they can do the job.

Unfortunately we all know that sometimes a firefighter can attend a class, sit in the back row and sleep, and still get a certificate for attendance when he leaves. This in no way qualifies that person to do the job, which is why we recommend that each firefighter demonstrate that he can do the task required. You wouldn't put your biggest person on the roof of a burning structure to do ventilation, nor do you want a team consisting of only inexperienced people. Use a little discretion in assembling teams.

Every team needs someone in charge it. The team leader is responsible for keeping the team together. If a member starts to go off on his own away from the team, the team leader needs to get that member back immediately to maintain the team's integrity. Also, the team leader must ensure that the team completes its assignment according to command's instructions, and reports any change of team location.

The team leader is responsible for collecting the individual team members' accountability tags, which he gives them to the accountability officer (AO), who now knows specifically who is on that team. The accountability tag must contain the member's name, department, and basic medical information such as medications he is taking, allergies, and emergency contacts. How many EMTs wish they had this basic information for every patient? If something happens to a firefighter, medical personnel can use this tag to assist them in treatment. These tags are exchanged at command where the IC and AO are located.

In return, the AO gives the team leader a tag with the team's assigned number on it. While the team leader is getting his numbered team tag from the AO and receiving the team's assignment, the rest of the team is assembling the tools needed to complete it (e.g., for attack, hand tools and hose ready; for ventilation, a ladder, a saw, a pike pole, and so forth). We have all taken classes and trained in-house to do this, we should not be standing around; we and our equipment should be ready to go when the team leader gets there.

We use a two-tag system. In addition to the team number tag, the team leader receives a second team tag, listing the names of the team members. He clips this tag to the team number tag, and clips them on his person. Now he has a record of his team members and his team number. The AO can now call for a personnel accountability report (PAR) at timed intervals, to check on the teams with the team leaders. "Team one, do you have PAR?" The team leader then does a visual head count of his team, and reports back whether he has PAR. We are now accounting for groups of individuals through the use of teams. PAR checks should be performed in 15- to 30-minute intervals, depending on the situation.

Pump operators and fire police are part of every PAR survey. They report by radio and are added to the board. How many of us check on these people regularly? How would we find out something has happened to them? They will be part of every PAR check now. The team leader will report any change of his team's location (e.g., moving to another floor, to the air station, or to rehab). The individual member tags stay with the AO, and the teams stay together until the scene is cleared.

I also keep track of the different SCBA types used by team members. When working with mutual aid, teams may include members from different departments that use different SCBA. Keep your information current; things move rapidly on a fire scene, a good AO will keep up with this. I will sometimes call for a PAR and will also ask for location, just to verify that my information is correct. Now if something happens, like a collapse, I can tell command which team was located there, who was on that team, what type of SCBA they are wearing, and approximately how much air they have left. I also note whether there is a large person on a team, because if a rescue necessary, the rescue team must have adequate staffing to get the job done.

This is a wealth of information to give a rescue team. I can also provide the medical crew with basic medical information. Working in teams not only makes true accountability possible, but also help us take care of each other.

I have just touched on the issue of working in teams. This system works for us. Perhaps you can get some ideas from this to use while developing an accountability system for your department to use.

Tino A. Yaccich is the accountability officer for the Beaver County (PA) Hazardous Materials team as well as numerous volunteer fire organizations in the Beaver County area. He has been with the fire service since February 1992. He became an accountability officer for Rochester Township (PA) Volunteer Fire Department in 1995. He is a cofounder of the ABBET-RIT Organization and coauthor of the Accountability System. He is a Pennsylvania State Fire Academy instructor. He has advised GE, Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security LLIS division, as well as several other organizations throughout the United States and abroad on accountability.

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