Keeping Track of Firefighters on the Fireground

NYC roof

Photos by author

One of the many challenges on the fireground for any incident commander (IC) is to keep track of firefighters. My department probably has state-of-the art technology in accounting for firefighters on the fireground, much improved from the past. In 1986, firefighters had 3/4 turnout coats and rubber boots. Only about half were issued portable radios; there was the vibration alert to notify the firefighter when his or her air is low and a battery-operated personal alert safety system (PASS) alarm.

Firefighter portable radio

Today’s portable radio is more powerful than the “handie-talkies” of old. The tactical channels are two watts, but if the firefighter gets in trouble he or she can press the Emergency Alert Button (EAB), which boosts the power up to five watts. (1) The portable radios are also an integral part of the Electronic Fireground Accountability System (EFAS). The system allows for real-time recognition of who’s sending a Mayday call. It also allows the IC to perform a rapid roll call on scene.

EFAS matches data from firefighters’ radios with the Fire Department of New York’s (FDNY) Electronic Riding List (ERL), a list entered each day by company officers, identifying who has which radio and their assigned position. Because each radio has a unique internal code, the EFAS system links that code to the ERL. When a Mayday call comes in, the Mobile Data Terminal screen shows the caller’s name, engine number, and assigned position at the incident. IC can then contact other members of the company who know where that person is supposed to be based on their assignment.

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One thing that has not changed is the vibration alert on the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). This alarm emits a fluttering noise from the regulator that is easily obscured by the ambient noise that happens at every working fire. This is more for the firefighters’ self-awareness that he is at 1/4 of a bottle. The 45-minute SCBA contains approximately 1,800 liters of air. Firefighters on average consume 40 liters of air per minute. In a perfect world, the firefighter would have 450 liters of air available. At 40 liters per minute on average, that gives a firefighter roughly 11 minutes of air. This is not the reality. There are many other factors such as physical exertion, physical conditioning, emotional factors, and the condition of SCBA

The vibration alert also serves as an alert to the officer or sector chief in proximity of the firefighter that the member is running low on air and should exit the IDLH.

The problem is that firefighters at times don’t heed the warning. They think that there is still six to seven minutes of air left and that should be okay to finish the search or to knock down that last room of fire.

As the safety chief at a recent fire on the 10th floor of a high-rise fireproof multiple dwelling (HRFPMD), it appeared that things were not going well. On my way to the fire, I could hear the handle-talkie transmissions reporting there were problems with water. The elevators were out of service, forcing the firefighters to walk. This resulted in the fire gaining considerable headway inside the cluttered apartment.

Hallway outside NYC fire

On the fire floor, the back-up engine along with some of the second-due ladder company firefighters were crowding the hallway outside the fire apartment. (2) The hallway needed to be cleared. The engine officer moved down the stairs to the half landing to conserve air and the rest of the firefighters forced the doors to the two adjoining apartments.

In the hallway outside the fire apartment a few of the vibration alerts could be heard going off inside the fire apartment. Within a minute or two, the ladder company officer came busting out of the apartment with only one firefighter. The other member of his forcible entry team was missing. He transmitted a Mayday and in an instant the rescue company was in the fire apartment. They found him very quickly by the window with an empty SCBA bottle gasping for air.

The PASS alarm (Photo) was battery operated that had to be manually turned on to arm it. I’m sure I’ve forgotten to do that many times. If a firefighter remained motionless for a time, it triggers the alarm. Today’s SCBA have integrated PASS devices built right into the device itself that work under the same premise. The integrated alarm goes into pre alarm if a firefighter is motionless for 20 seconds and full alarm 12 seconds after that. The problem these days is that we have become desensitized to the alarms. We’ve all become complacent. These days If the alarm cycles, the first thought is to tell the firefighter to move or if you are close by give him or her a shake. The thought never occurs to anyone that that a firefighter is in trouble.

The reason we never heard them years ago was because most of the firefighters probably never turned them on.

NYC roof

At a fire we had about 30 years ago, we responded second due to a fire in a five-story multiple dwelling. The first-due ladder company had an inexperienced firefighter on the roof position. Conditions were so severe that when he got to the roof it was obscured in smoke. Heavy fire and smoke were pushing up the air and light shaft. (3) In his haste he attempted to traverse the shaft, thinking it was just a parapet. He lost his footing and fell 75 feet down the shaft. He was barely able to give a Mayday, but his PASS device activated and our roof firefighter, suspecting something was wrong when he saw his tools on the roof with him nowhere to be found, heard the PASS at the bottom of the shaft. He was eventually rescued and transported to the hospital in extremely critical condition.

Today’s firefighters are taught from the very start to always wear their SCBA. Back in the ’50 and ‘60s, SCBA was not part of the culture. Only a few SCBAs were even available on the apparatus, and they were usually packed away in a case somewhere in the back. The firefighters that broke me in learned that if they ever got to the point that the air ran out in their SCBA bottle, they could get to a window or hug the floor and suck it up. I too learned that the smoke was in some cases, like a vacant building fire, bearable, but I also knew the line not to cross. Anytime we had a fire in a HRFPMD, basement, commercial building, or any other fire where ventilation was a problem, the face piece did not come off.

I remember one time being a bit reckless. We were assigned to check the basement in a commercial fire where the sprinklers had knocked down the fire. The basement looked clear so I didn’t suspect that there would be a problem. As I walked down the steps into the basement, I felt dizzy and donned my face piece immediately. I had just read in the FDNY Training Bulletin SCBA addendum 3:

“Exposure to 1.3% of carbon monoxide will cause unconsciousness in two to three breaths and will cause death in a few minutes. Exposure to small concentrations for only a few seconds will inhibit one’s ability to think clearly, rapidly causes disorientation and gives a feeling of euphoria compounding the risk hazard”


I knew that fires extinguished by sprinklers produce an abundance of CO due to incomplete combustion. The CO, which is normally lighter than air, settles in low spots when it cools. That mistake could have been deadly. This is why we should never operate alone, especially in basements.

Back in the day when SCBA was the “demand type,” firefighters could get away with keeping their face piece on their side and when they needed a few breaths, they would put it to their face and took a few hits. SCBAs today are “positive pressure” which makes it difficult for firefighters to cheat. With the positive pressure type, the air flows until you manually hit the shut off switch on top of regulator. I couldn’t even imagine trying to cheat in today’s hostile fire environment; you would just be asking for trouble.

When i was new to the department, I had this notion that firefighting was not nearly as dangerous as SCUBA diving. Smoke was somewhat breathable but not water. I have since changed my thinking entirely. The fire load, which used to be primarily cellulose-based products, is now full of hydrocarbons, producing smoke that is extremely toxic. If firefighter gear is any indication of how bad the smoke is, consider that I once saw a firefighter come out of an apartment who was a brand-new rookie, but his front piece was so black that he looked like he had 20 years in the department.

Today we are light years ahead of where we were 34 years ago.
• Integrated PASS devices
• Positive pressure SCBA
• Bunker gear
• Nomex hoods
• Personal harness and escape ropes
• Rapid intervention teams (RIT)
• Assigned portable radios that are tied into an EFAS
• EABs on the radios
• Electronic command boards
• Drones

Where Are You?

Even with all this advanced technology, we are still missing one thing. A recent fire where a firefighter was low on air a Mayday provides an example. Everything was done textbook. He transmitted the Mayday, identified who he was, his assignment, his company. He activated his EAB. The IC activated the RIT and every effort was made to find him

There was only one thing missing; the question that was asked throughout the entire ordeal, “Where are you?” He informed the IC “I’m in the rear,” but nothing more.

I was walking the trade show floor at FDIC International in 2018 where I stumbled across a small booth. It was a brand-new start up company that had a vision, to track firefighters throughout the building on any floor. It is known as the “ Z”, referring to the floor level inside the building. GPS can give you a location, the X and Y coordinates, but not the Z.


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I met Patrick O’Connor CEO and Ryan Litt COO from 3AM Innovations. Patrick is a volunteer firefighter from a small town in Western New York near Buffalo. He was motivated by a fire where two firefighters lost their lives because the Mayday was never received at the command post. The Mayday was stepped on by radio traffic and they remained trapped. Patrick quit his job, mortgaged his house, and started the company.

They developed a wearable device about the size of a cell phone that goes in a firefighter’s bunker pant leg pocket. It is part of a mesh network that hops the data between wearables in order to get the message to the IC outside. It combines inertial, radio frequencies, and GPS to track the firefighter throughout the building. It also stores data so in a sense it becomes a “black box” for firefighters.

When technologies such as this come into the fire service, it will be a game changer. If we are able to know where all the firefighters are at any given time, logic would dictate that we also would know who would be the closest to the firefighter in trouble. If this is the case, why couldn’t the firefighters closest to the firefighter attempt to rescue him or her? There have been instances where other firefighters have been in the area of the down firefighter and they weren’t aware that they were so close.

Before the RIT was instituted, firefighters would drop what they were doing and address the firefighter in trouble. I’m not advocating this at all. We always need to continue fighting the fire while attempting to rescue the firefighter in need. What I am advocating is that perhaps the IC can use the resources already in the area and then back fill the gaps. Let’s say that the engine on the fire floor is closest. Have the nozzle firefighter and officer maintain the hoseline but have the other firefighters be guided to the downed firefighter. The RIT could bring up any tools or RIT bag needed and assist with the hoseline.

If it’s a matter of a firefighter being disoriented and not low on air, it would make perfect sense that someone who is monitoring the command board could verbally guide the firefighter to safety. I know firsthand how easy it is to lose your way in a fire. I once spent what felt like an eternity trying to get out of a kitchen in a five-story renovated tenement. It was well into the operation. We started out working on the second floor and eventually wound up cutting the roof. When this happened, I was probably on my second or even third bottle. I was on the top floor when I got lost. I started to search and look for extension in the kitchen when I somehow got turned around. I was going in circles, exasperated, I was losing hope of getting out of this kitchen when I heard a lieutenant from a ladder company calling. I was able to follow his voice and made it out. I was quite embarrassed to have gotten lost in a small kitchen.

I look forward to anything that will help keep our firefighters safer on the fireground. If I can find my I phone using “Find my phone app” or my car keys using similar tech, we should be able to track our firefighters throughout the building at any given time.


High-Rise Firefighting Lessons Learned

First-Due Battalion Chief: Fires in High-Rise Fireproof Multiple Dwellings

First-Due Battalion Chief: The Rapid Intervention Team

First-Due Battalion Chief: Complacency

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