By Tino A. Yaccich
Accountability is simply part of the command structure needed to run an incident effectively. The first thing every incident needs is an incident commander (IC). The IC has many responsibilities and must trust his officers to do their jobs. After establishing command and determining a command post location, the IC must remain at the command post.
He should not be roaming around the fire scene, in fighting the fire, up on an aerial, or anywhere other than at the command post. If the IC wants to know what’s going on inside, in the rear of the structure, or anywhere else he can’t see, he should ask his officers or team leaders. Keeping the IC informed on conditions in their respective areas is one of their jobs. The IC must either remain at the command post or relinquish command to someone else while he does whatever he needs to do.
The IC is responsible for the entire incident. He must use many people to aid him in handling all of the jobs that must be done at an incident. Unfortunately, because of personnel shortages among volunteer fire departments, the IC can’t always fill the need with his own department personnel. That’s what mutual aid is for. When calling for mutual aid, the IC should use the other responding departments’ officers to fill his command structure positions. If necessary, command may also be expanded using joint command to manage the incident.
The IC is responsible for EVERYONE on the scene, emergency and civilian: Fire, medical, police, and mutual aid personnel; homeowners; the media-everyone. He may not be directly in charge of everyone, but he is responsible for them and their actions. That is why it is so crucial for him to use good judgment when filling the incident command team positions. Beside the obvious size-up of the situation and risk/benefit analysis-an ongoing task that lasts for the entire operation-there are many other jobs that must be performed, far too many for one person.
Let’s start off with staging. Until my department started using a staging officer, I didn’t realize how badly we needed one. The staging officer is responsible for staging all incoming units and personnel. How many units do we really need to fight a single-family residential dwelling? A pumper, a rescue, and maybe an aerial.
Watch your local news tonight; unfortunately, there will likely be a structural fire somewhere. Take a good look at the scene–chances are the department shown will have pulled up every piece of apparatus they own as close as they can get them to the fire, as well as all the mutual-aid units. In such a case, if someone needed medical transportation, ambulance access would be a problem.
Why do we do this? Except for the units that are actually fighting the fire, all other apparatus should be staged at a specific apparatus staging location a short distance from the fire scene. This site should be announced over the radio and all incoming units directed there. You should no longer hear: “Unit XYZ approaching, where you want me?” All apparatus is to report to apparatus staging. Although there may be a few pieces of specialty equipment that one department may bring with them, essentially everything needed to fight the fire will be on the first-arriving units.
On arrival, all personnel must report to personnel staging. There, the staging officer uses this personnel pool to make teams based on command’s need to perform certain jobs. If you are not assigned, you need to be in personnel staging. There is no reason for personnel to roam all over the fireground. Just because there is a fire, there’s no reason for people to run around as if they don’t know what they are doing. We do know what we are doing; that is why we go to school and train every week. It’s time to start conducting ourselves this way.
The safety officer (SO) is another valuable command team position. However, if your SO is busy collecting tags and tracking personnel, he is not acting as an SO, he is acting as an accountability officer. One person cannot perform both of these jobs at the same time. The SO should be moving around the structure, keeping an eye on the fire’s behavior as well as the structure itself, looking for signs of flashover, collapse, and so forth. Thus, SOs must be trained in building construction, structural collapse, and fire behavior, as well as department standard operating guidelines (SOGs).
The SO must also keep an eye on the team members operating around the scene, ensuring that everyone is wearing their gear properly and not performing any unsafe acts. The safety officer should have the authority to stop any action he deems unsafe, and to order personnel to put their gear on properly without getting a hard time about it.
The chief must act quickly and decisively on the word of his SO. Some departments in my area issue their SOs “report cards.” The officers use these cards to check off firefighter compliance with good safety practices such as wearing gloves, attaching the helmet chin strap, properly donning bunker gear, wearing eye protection, and so forth. Randomly, at every scene, the SO reports on an individual firefighter. If all of the checkmarks are positive, the chief gives the firefighter a little positive reinforcement. However, if there are some bad checks, the chief calls the member into his office, verifies that the he is clear on the department’s procedures regarding the issue, and issues a verbal warning. If the problem continues, it must be dealt with accordingly.
The accountability officer (AO) should have some knowledge about how a fireground works, be familiar with the radio terms, and know why and how teams are doing what they are doing. I suggest that the AO staged at the command post, not moving around the scene. Team leaders should not have to chase the AO, thus making accountability a burden, and something we are less likely to do correctly, if at all.
Keep in mind that my only experience is with the volunteer sector; I am not qualified to speak of paid fire departments or their procedures. The excuse that a department does not have anyone to fill this position is not valid. Obviously, you would not use one of your qualified interior firefighters to fill this position. Use instead someone that does not wish to or physically cannot fight fires, but still wants to contribute. I have seen senior members, firefighter’s wives, junior firefighters, even people in wheelchairs make fine accountability officers.
To perform accountability manually, as I prefer to, an AO needs something to write on. I use a plastic board and a grease pencil, which cannot be accidentally wiped off or smeared if you brush against it, or use it in the rain and snow. My board also has rings down the sides with numbered team tags.
When the team leader gives me his team members’ tags, I give him a team tag with the number assigned to his team. Now I know who is on that team. When the IC gives the team leader his assignment, he reports the location and the assignment to the AO. The AO records this on the board. The team leader will now report any change of location so that the AO can keep accountability board information current. I also record the type of SCBA that each team member is wearing. Individual team members may be from different departments that use different SCBA; this information will assist the IC in coordinating a rescue if needed.
I perform personnel accountability reports (PARs) or status checks on teams through the team leaders at timed intervals, but only after clearing it with command first. We do PARs at 15- to 20-minute intervals, depending on the scene, or whenever command deems it necessary. I first call command for permission to do a PAR. After receiving permission, I then am allowed the radio air time to perform the check without interfering with other operations. Pump operators and fire police report their locations and included in all PARs.
If you are not part of a team, you must be in staging, not freelancing! I keep track of everyone operating on the scene with PARs, simply calling on the radio: “Team 1, do you have PAR?” and so on with the other teams. Then I call truck numbers for pump operators and then fire police until everyone is accounted for. This system can account for an entire fireground in seconds, even in the event of an evacuation.
Some of you may remember the procedure of sounding the air horn and trying to count personnel while they moved around. It was like trying to count ants, without ever being sure who was there to begin with. We deserve better than that.
Some say that this procedure takes too long and ties up the radio, but nothing is more important than the knowing the location and status of everyone operating on a scene.
These accountability tools can make fireground management a lot easier for us, and help our scenes run a lot more smoothly.
Subjects: Incident management, accountability, manual accountability systems, safety officer, accountability officer, incident command