Functional Fireground Accountability, Part 1: Are We Making Progress?

BY DAN MILLER AND CHRIS LANGLOIS

Firefighters who die in the line of duty on the fireground do not usually die because of one single event. It’s true that the death of a firefighter is often narrowed down to one overriding cause such as running out of air, being involved in a collapse, getting lost/disoriented, or being caught in a flashover. However, it is often a series of smaller events that lead up to or contribute to what ultimately becomes a tragedy. The job of those left behind is to learn from those tragedies. We must identify the links in the chain of events, both large and small, that lead up to each tragedy, and we must remove or at least lessen the effects of those links in future incidents.

If you research the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Firefighter Fatality Investigation Program, you will clearly see a series of “repeat offenders” when it comes to contributing factors. One factor present in too many fatality investigation reports is a lack of establishment or a loss of personnel accountability. Although accountability/accountability systems have been a subject of growing importance to the national fire service, are we really making progress? Are we really addressing the core problems that result in a loss of personnel accountability, or are we simply throwing tags and technology at the problem and hoping that it goes away? Tags and technology are great tools to help us maintain accountability, but they must be combined with an improvement in how we organize and operate on the fireground, as well as enforcement of accountability procedures.

In the past few years, lack or loss of fireground accountability was identified in several line-of-duty deaths (see box “Accountability and Line-of-Duty Deaths”). This isn’t a new problem either. Let’s look back 12 years to that fateful day of December 3, 1999, in Worcester, Massachusetts, when six firefighters became lost and subsequently died in a cold storage warehouse. The NIOSH report from that incident told us, Accountability on the fireground is of paramount importance. SOPs should address accountability, including the location and the duties of the responding fire companies.1

Seventeen years ago on Valentine’s Day, 1995, three firefighters lost their lives in a house on Bricelyn Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Forty-one minutes had elapsed from the time it was first realized that firefighters were in trouble until an entire engine company was found down. The engine company up to that point had been unaccounted for. The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) report from that incident states: Accountability procedures were not implemented. The locations and functions of companies operating inside the house were not known to the Incident Commander. It was not realized that members were missing.2

Accountability problems occur in all sizes and types of fire departments. In Pennsylvania in 2001, for example, an all-volunteer department consisting of 39 members serving a population of 4,500 people lost a firefighter when he became disoriented and ran out of air in a 12-foot × 12-foot room of a mobile home. Crew integrity was compromised several times during the incident when firefighters and officers entered and exited the interior of the structure alone. The firefighter who was killed was attempting to exit the structure with another firefighter along their hoseline. Both firefighters became separated from the tangled hoseline and each other. The other firefighter exited through a window and was transported to a local hospital. The victim did not find an exit. The NIOSH report states: Between 30 and 40 minutes elapsed before it was determined that the victim was missing.3 The factors that combined to lead up to this firefighter’s death included lack of crew integrity, disorientation, and lack of fireground accountability.

Accountability and Line-of-Duty Deaths

Establishing and maintaining accountability in a volunteer department may present additional challenges, since the incident commander (IC) does not usually know which individuals are responding to the incident until they arrive at the station or the scene. However, larger all-career departments are not immune simply because they usually have personnel already assigned to a company. This was illustrated clearly in 2007 at the Charleston (SC) Sofa Super Store fire. The details leading up to the deaths of nine firefighters during that incident are well known. However, some of the contributing factors are very similar to those of the above 2001 Pennsylvania incident: (1) lack of incident command (no overall strategy/plan, lack of assignments given to arriving companies); (2) lack of crew integrity (Charleston Fire Department members routinely entered and operated in immediately dangerous to life and health atmospheres alone. Company officers frequently lost track of their assigned crew members;4 (3) disorientation (long, tangled hoselines; lost interior firefighters who ran out of air); and (4) lack of accountability (The Charleston Fire Department had not adopted a personnel accountability system to keep track of individual firefighters, companies, or crews that were operating on the scene of an incident. Command officers relied on memory to keep track of company locations and assignments). (4)

Two vastly different types and sizes of departments—one a small all-volunteer and the other a larger all-career—were involved in two vastly different types of structure fires: a 900-square-foot mobile home fire and a large furniture store fire, respectively. Yet they both experienced very similar problems relative to fireground accountability.

WHY DON’T WE GET IT?

Every year, firefighters die while operating on the fireground. Over at least the past 17 years, it has been repeatedly documented that not knowing who is actively operating on the fireground, what they are doing, and where they are doing it is contributing to firefighter deaths. It’s not that complicated, so why don’t we get it? We hear many excuses when the issue of accountability is brought up: “We don’t have big buildings or big fires to get lost in”; “It’s just a house fire; how can you lose someone in a house fire?” “There aren’t many of us, so it’s easy to notice if someone is missing”; “The chief can keep track of everyone in his head”; “Accountability will slow us down”/”We don’t have time”; “By the time the chief shows up, everyone’s scattered doing things. It’s too hard to try and track people”; “We’ve never lost anyone before.”

Some excuses revolve around the perception that establishing and maintaining accountability will be more of an impediment to our fireground operations, that it’s just too difficult and would take too much time and effort away from fighting the fire. Everyone understands that the fireground is a fast moving; dynamic; and, many times, chaotic environment in the best of situations. However, consider how much more complicated that environment becomes when the IC hears the word “Mayday” on the radio or suddenly realizes that an individual or an entire crew has not been seen or heard from and he has no idea of where to start looking.

ACCOUNTABILITY DEFINED

So that we are clear from the start, let’s look at what accountability should NOT be:

  • A complicated system that takes you away from or reduces your core mission of serving the people you protect. It does not require the first three engine companies on scene to set up an elaborate system of tags, boards, and electronic gadgets while stopping arriving firefighters to swipe a card or find out what their favorite color is.
  • A system that is not thought about or initiated until a later arriving chief officer arrives and attempts to do the impossible by locating and tracking multiple personnel/crews on scene and working somewhere in, on top of, or around the fire building.
  • A system that suddenly needs to be created from scratch during a Mayday situation or when it is discovered that someone might be missing.
  • A system a department attempts to use only when it thinks it is needed, such as during large multiple-alarm fires.
  • A system specific only to your department if you frequently use automatic- or mutual-aid with surrounding communities. If you are going to invite all the kids in the neighborhood to play, make sure everyone knows the rules of the game before they show up.

Following is what an accountability system must be:

  • A system that is in place and actively working within your department 24/7/365.
  • A part of the thought process of each firefighter and officer, even when they are not actively operating at an emergency incident.
  • A system that begins with the arrival of the first department member, who must initiate incident command and actively track personnel/crews/assignments on the fireground.
  • A part of every drill and every training scenario you conduct with your new firefighters and the salty veterans.
  • A system that begins long before the fire starts and the tones sound at the neighborhood fire station. It must begin the first day individuals start their journey as new firefighters.

FUNCTIONAL ACCOUNTABILITY

A great, yet simple, definition of functional accountability, and one by which we will all be judged, is contained in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, 2007 edition. It states: “The IC shall maintain an awareness of the location and function of all companies or crews at the scene.”

To achieve this goal, we must be able to answer these three accountability questions at all times:

1. Who is operating on our fireground?
2. What are they doing?
3. Where are they doing it?

Accountability must be an integral and ongoing part of the way the fire department operates and trains. NFPA 1500 further requires us to develop written standard operating procedures (SOPs) for an accountability system. This SOP can be the foundation for educating new firefighters, refreshing veterans’ knowledge, and practicing accountability in every training exercise. Firefighters, regardless of rank or experience level, must be trained to understand where they fit in the department’s accountability system and what their individual responsibilities are. Firefighters should not be learning about accountability for the first time when they start to study for a promotional exam.

We typically do a great job teaching recruit firefighters necessary survival skills, but isn’t understanding and maintaining accountability just as important to their survival as their being able to deal with an entanglement, breach a wall, or call a Mayday? We stress to firefighters that they must call a Mayday as soon as possible without hesitation because in a Mayday situation, time is life—the longer they wait, the longer it will take for help to get to them. However, how long will they have to wait for help if the IC has no idea of where they or their crew members are? If a firefighter is unable to get that Mayday call out, how long will it take someone to realize that the firefighter is missing? Some line-of-duty death reports show that the time lapse from when a firefighter gets into trouble until someone realizes that the firefighter is even missing has been as long as 30 to 40 minutes.

To assess the effectiveness of your accountability system, answer the three accountability questions during each training exercise and scenario. If you cannot do this during training, you will not be able to do it out in the street. Find out where the problems are, and fix them immediately.

ICS AND ACCOUNTABILITY

One of the main goals of the incident command system (ICS) is to manage resources. As a result, ICS has a built-in accountability system. Proper management of resources is necessary to achieve and maintain accountability. Likewise, you cannot manage resources without being able to answer the three who, what, and where accountability questions. You cannot have one without the other.

However, remember that accountability through incident command is possible only if it is established from the very beginning of the incident with the arrival of the first unit, officer, or member who establishes command and begins to assign and track incoming resources. Resources that self-deploy on the fireground without the establishment and direction of an overall IC are not operating within incident command, a single incident action plan (IAP), or an accountability system. Any organization that waits for a later arriving chief officer to show up, establish command, and then attempt to locate and track multiple self-deployed resources from scratch is setting that chief officer and the organization up for failure and, ultimately, a tragic disaster.

Accountability through incident command is possible through the following core ICS principles:

  • Unity of Command: Each individual is assigned by and reports to only one supervisor.
  • Span of Control: Each supervisor can be directly responsible for, and therefore keep track of, only three to seven individuals; five is optimal.
  • Establishment of a strong command and control system built to meet the needs of the existing incident and that can be expanded as needed.

CREW INTEGRITY

To meet these core principles, every fire department must address the issue of establishing and maintaining identifiable and cohesive crews. Each crew must have a leader who knows which members he is to track and supervise, and crew members must know to which leader they are to report. Once established, these crews must stay together from initial deployment into the incident with an assignment, throughout operations, to rotation into rehab, and then either to staging or back into operations with another assignment. This requires discipline as well as crew leaders who ensure the location and well-being of their members and the members’ personal responsibility to stay with the crew and report to their crew leader.

Career departments typically have an easier time establishing crews, since they usually have preestablished staffing on each apparatus with an officer or at least a crew leader, but not always. Smaller departments may have crews that split to staff separate apparatus depending on the nature of the call. Volunteer departments may have a more difficult time establishing crews, since they do not usually know who is available to respond until the call comes in. Nevertheless, crews must be established, and this process must be addressed in department policies and procedures.

Volunteer departments may require all personnel to respond to the station to staff apparatus before responding to the incident. In this case, crews may be established as personnel arrive at the station, with the crew leader of each apparatus being the officer or senior member sitting in the right front seat. The crew of each apparatus has a leader, operates together, and is identified by that apparatus [i.e., Engine (E) 301]. Other departments may allow members to respond directly to the incident in personal vehicles. Members who arrive at the incident individually must be assigned to a crew on arrival. If E-301 arrives with a driver and an officer and two members arrive independently in personal vehicles, those two members must be assigned to E-301; the officer should be advised that those individuals have been assigned to him, and the individuals must be told to whom they must report. Additionally, if multiple members respond to the scene independently, they may also be organized into crews without being attached to an apparatus. They can be identified in many ways, depending on department procedures (i.e., Crew Alpha, Crew 1, or even by the crew leader’s name such as Crew Smith).

Establishing crews must be practiced and enforced. During training, monthly drills, or station work, assign members to a crew with a crew leader, and identify each crew so that everyone gets used to working this way. Practice drills where personnel arrive on scene in both apparatus and personal vehicles and require that officers assign individuals to a crew or organize them into crews. No matter how it is done, identifiable crews, each with a leader, must be established while following the principles of unity of command and span of control. Any IC would be hard-pressed to keep track of 12 individuals during incident operations. However, through the establishment of crews and the principles of ICS, the IC can successfully track three crews of four individuals each (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Crews: Who, What, Where
Twelve individuals at this incident are organized into three crews of four individuals, each with a designated leader.
Twelve individuals at this incident are organized into three crews of four individuals, each with a designated leader.

ASSIGNMENTS AND LOCATIONS

Even with the establishment of command and identifiable cohesive crews, accountability cannot be maintained without knowing what those crews are doing and where, in general, they are doing it. This begins with the creation of an IAP by the initial IC. Being the IC involves more than just getting on the radio and saying, “Establishing Main Street Command.” That’s the easy part. The IC then must figure out and prioritize what needs to be done, who is going to do it, and where.

Firefighters typically show up as quickly as they can with a desire to “get into the fight”; they don’t want to stand around. Consequently, if the initial IC does not give those crews something to do or otherwise control their deployment when they show up, there is a good chance crews may choose to self-deploy into the incident by assigning themselves to whatever they think is a priority or whatever looks like the most fun in whatever location they want to be. When this happens, accountability is lost—if it was ever really established.

A cardinal rule of accountability is that no crew shall operate on the fireground without an assignment and a location to complete that assignment. The IC should also not feel pressured to give an assignment to a crew just because it showed up. If the IC has more resources arriving than tasks that need to be completed at that time, the IC should assign those additional resources to a staging area. If they are not immediately needed, the IC must still control them and place them in a position to be available and readily deployed when necessary.

Example Scenario: Engine 301 (four personnel) arrives first at a two-story, single-family dwelling with fire on the second floor. The E-301 captain establishes command and assigns his crew to initiate Fire Attack on Division 2. Truck (T) 302 (four personnel) arrives and is assigned by the IC to become Roof Division with the objective of vertical ventilation. Rescue (R) 303 (four personnel) arrives and is assigned to Search, starting on the second floor (Figure 1).

If the IC maintains an awareness of where each crew is and their assignments and if the crews stay together with each crew leader maintaining an awareness of the location and the well-being of each firefighter for whom he is responsible, accountability is established and maintained. The initial IC can answer all three accountability questions at this point:

table

MAINTAINING ACCOUNTABILITY

It’s one thing to initially establish accountability at an incident; it is quite another to maintain it as the incident expands, resources are added, and command is transferred to later arriving chief officers. Undoubtedly, at any working incident, command will eventually be transferred from the initial first-arriving officer to a later-arriving chief officer. When this happens, communication must take place between the initial IC and the officer to whom command is being transferred. This would preferably take place face-to-face if possible, but it may be done over the radio if the initial IC is in a “Working Command” mode with his crew. Either way, this communication should include not only the acknowledgment that command is being transferred and accepted but also a status report on the current situation and the assignment and location of any resources already deployed. In other words, accountability must also be transferred and accepted as a part of command. In our example scenario, Chief 300 arrives on location, contacts the IC (E-301 captain) to let him know that he has arrived, and is ready to take command. The E-301 captain acknowledges the transfer of command and gives a brief report on the status of the incident as well as the assignments already given to E-301, T-302, and R-303 and their general locations.

Communication

Communication from crews that have been assigned to operate on the fireground is also essential to maintaining accountability. Remember, we must be able to continue to answer the who, what, and where accountability questions throughout the incident. Although a crew shouldn’t change assignments without the IC’s directing it, and thus acknowledging it, a crew may very well change locations while completing an assignment. For instance, an engine company assigned to attack and extinguish a fire on the first floor of a house may discover that the fire is actually in the basement. This information by itself is important for the IC to know, but it is also important for the IC to know that the crew is moving from the first floor to the basement to continue its fire attack assignment. It is, therefore, essential for interior crews to give periodic status reports to the IC not only when important information needs to be communicated but also when they move from one major area of the building to another (i.e., from one floor to another).

Continuing our scenario, when R-303 has completed a primary search of Division 2 and is moving to Division 1 to complete a search there, it should give a status report to the IC advising that the primary search on Division 2 is “all clear” and they are moving to Division 1 to continue their search. The IC can thus continue to track the crew, its assignment and status, as well as its current general location.

PERSONNEL AND CREW ACCOUNTABILITY REPORTS

If, at any time during an incident, the IC wants to ensure that all personnel are accounted for, he can request a personnel accountability report (PAR) from all crews. When a PAR is requested, the crew leaders account for the location and well-being of the members for which they are responsible. In Figure 1, the officers of E-301, T-302, and R-303 would account for their members, and if everyone were accounted for, each officer would report a PAR directly to the IC.

If multiple crews were assigned to a group or division, PARs would be completed by each crew leader and then the Group/Division supervisor would report a crew accountability report (CAR) to the IC for each crew reporting to them. For example, if an additional engine (E-304) were added to the Fire Attack Group in Figure 2, each engine captain would complete a PAR for their individual members, which would be reported to the Fire Attack Group supervisor. This supervisor would then report a CAR to the IC for E-301 and E-304. At a larger incident with multiple crews assigned to multiple groups/divisions, this process keeps every individual crew from having to communicate directly with an already busy IC.

Figure 2. PAR and CAR Reports
The members of Engines 301 and 304 are accounted for by their captains (PAR), and then the Fire Attack Group Supervisor (captain of E-301) reports a CAR to the IC for Engines 301 and 304.
The members of Engines 301 and 304 are accounted for by their captains (PAR), and then the Fire Attack Group Supervisor (captain of E-301) reports a CAR to the IC for Engines 301 and 304.

The Foundation of Functional Fireground Accountability

You’ve probably noticed that the system outlined here so far has not mentioned any kind of tags, tools, boards, global positioning systems, or other types of technology or state-of-the-art features. A strong ICS that identifies and makes tactical assignments and promotes crew integrity and good communications does not require that you purchase anything. The system requires training, preparation, practice, discipline, leadership, and personal responsibility. If your organization does not have these things, it has more than an accountability problem. It has an organizational and cultural problem, which can’t be changed with technology.

The system discussed here is the foundation of an accountability system—the basic structure on which you can add additional tools and technology to build a system geared to your department. Although tools and technology cannot replace a good organizational accountability system, there are some basic tools you can easily incorporate into fireground operations to enhance and complement the overall accountability system. These and additional tools and technologies will be discussed in Part 2.

References

1. NIOSH (2000). 99-F47 “Six Career Fire Fighters Killed in Cold-Storage and Warehouse Building Fire – Massachusetts.” Retrieved on March 3, 2011 from: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face9947.html.

2. USFA (1996). Technical Report Series. TR-078 Three Firefighters Die in Pittsburgh House Fire. Retrieved on March 3, 2011 from: www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/tr-078.pdf.

3. NIOSH (2001). F2001-04 Volunteer Fire Fighter (Lieutenant) Killed and One Fire Fighter Injured During Mobile Home Fire– Pennsylvania. Retrieved on January 4, 2011 from: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face200104.html.

4. Routley, J.G. (2008). “Sofa Super Store Firefighter Fatality Investigation Report.” Retrieved on Oct. 2, 2008 from: /downloads.pennnet.com/fe/misc/20080515charlestonreport.pdf.

DAN MILLER, a 31-year year veteran of the fire service, has served in volunteer, combination, and career departments including more than eight years on Omaha (NE) Fire Department’s Rescue 1. He has held the ranks of firefighter, fire apparatus engineer, lieutenant, captain, assistant chief, and chief. He is a captain with the Omaha Fire Department Training and Special Operations Bureau. His fire service certifications include National Fire Protection Association firefighter II, instructor II, fire officer I, incident safety officer, and EMT-I, including technician and instructor level certifications in hazmat, high angle rescue, trench rescue, and confined space. He teaches part time for the Nebraska State Fire Marshal Training Division. He has an associate degree in electronics and in fire science technology.

CHRIS LANGLOIS, a 24-year veteran of the fire service, has served in volunteer, combination, and career departments and has held the ranks of firefighter, driver, captain, and chief officer. He is a captain with the Omaha (NE) Fire Department Training and Special Operations Bureau and serves as a plans manager with the Nebraska Task Force 1 US&R team. His national certifications include firefighter II, instructor II, fire officer II, incident safety officer, and NREMT-paramedic. He has an associate degree in fire science, a bachelor’s degree in public fire administration, and a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership.

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