Accountability: Keeping the Perspective

by Tino Yaccich

Regarding accountability, keep in perspective what you are trying to accomplish. Never lose sight of the objective.

In my 13-plus years as an accountability officer for my department, I have seen many accountability systems that relied on electronics to do so much more than is necessary. These systems did everything from inventorying our equipment to telling me how old my firefighters are. I’ve seen all the bells and whistles that come along with some systems. Some even claim to be “Everything an incident commander needs to run his scene.”

I have also seen the price tag that goes along with them. Now it is time to ask, “Do we really need to spend a large sum of money on a system to do what can be done manually?” I just can’t justify spending large amounts of money on a piece of equipment to do a job that can be done without it. I have been accounting for my firefighters for more than 13 years. Do these sales representatives want us to believe that if we don’t buy their system, our firefighters will not be accounted for? Perhaps the thousands of dollars on such systems should be used to buy critical firefighting gear for my department’s firefighters.

All of my experience in firefighter accountability has been with volunteer fire departments, not with large paid fire departments; keep this in mind when choosing an accountability system for your fire department. The system that I use for a roster of around 50 may not work for a large city department with a roster of hundreds. Although the basic accountability principles are the same, the system used to accomplish the goal may be different.

In my eyes, electronic systems are tools, nothing more. You still need a human to operate them. It is more important to have a good accountability officer to run your system than it is to have an elaborate system. I have been the one who has shown up at the funerals of our brother firefighters, and have spoken to several fire companies with suggestions on how to make sure that we learn from their tragedies. I go to the training sessions. I go to the celebrations of my brother firefighters, and I am also there when something happens.

I am a brother firefighter with a mission to make sure that every family has a firefighter come home safely. I am also a disabled veteran who spends every day of the week confined to a wheelchair. I cannot fight fires because of my physical limitations, but firefighting is in my soul, and I have a deep love and dedication for accountability. My physical limitations do not and will never stop me from doing my part. The firefighters I account for know that, no matter what happens, somebody knows where they are. If something bad should happen, they will never be left inside.

I spent my first three years in the fire service as a firefighter. I know what it feels like to be in a burning building. The thought of being trapped in there was always in the back of my mind. Now that I can no longer fight fires, I have dedicated my life to ensuring that everyone goes home safely; that’s what I call accountability. The lack of good accountability of our firefighters is what scares me most. Why does it take a tragedy for people to realize how important this really is? The general public knows that no matter what goes wrong, call 911, and someone will come and fix it for you.

In my years with the fire service, I have seen us fix many problems for many people, so why can’t eliminate the smallest of our own problems? There are still some fire departments that fail to make accountability part of their command system. How can we ask our personnel to perform duties under extreme circumstances without letting them know their safety comes first?

The lack of accountability is easy to fix; all it takes is a little common sense. Unfortunately, electronic systems don’t have common sense. Before you go choosing an accountability system, find a dedicated accountability officer. Read and study the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) line-of-duty death (LODD) reports and learn from them. The best way to honor a fallen firefighter is to learn from the mistakes and never repeat them. There is no reason that firefighters’ lives should be lost because of a lack of accountability.

Find a system that requires your firefighters to work in teams, and remain in those teams. Communication with the team leaders is a must. It should be done in a way that does not tie up the radio.

It deeply troubles me when I read a NIOSH report that indicates that a good accountability system may have made a difference. This is very simple stuff. The politics and attitudes need to go away; we need to start thinking about us and our own safety. The volunteer fire service leadership needs to take things a little more seriously when it comes to the safety of its personnel before it is too late.

I have assisted in setting up accountability systems for large corporations with as many as 10,000 employees, and have also done so for small volunteer fire departments with as few as 10 members. No matter what end of the spectrum you are on, it is an important issue and should be high on your priority list. Fire departments have many issues that need to be addressed, such as funding for trucks, stations, personal protective equipment, and so on. Why not take care of this issue so you can move onto other things?

Accountability is here to stay, like it or not. It is rapidly becoming a part of incident management systems everywhere. I encourage you to be proactive and have a good system in place when it is needed. Unfortunately, I have seen fire departments that have realized this after it is too late. It doesn’t really matter how things were done in the past. Change is a hard pill to swallow in the fire service, but it is time that we start taking care of ourselves. I have seen departments that have encouraged the leadership to change its thought process on safety issues, some going as far as making changes at election time to ensure these issues are addressed.

Accountability is a great reason to implement many needed changes for the better in the incident command structure. Anyone who has taken the ABBET-RIT Inc. Accountability Systems class knows that running an effective emergency scene is not as difficult as it seems. The days of running around a fire scene like the Keystone Cops are long gone. Everything on a fire scene should have a purpose and organization.

Accountability is just one of the issues that can be simply organized. It is a small part of the fire scene that can make an enormous difference to the outcome.

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.

Subjects: Incident management, accountability, manual accountability systems

No posts to display