FIREGROUND ACCOUNTABILITY: SOPs CAN SAVE LIVES
WITHOUT WARNING a tone opens your alert monitor receiver; the dispatcher reports a possible fire in the basement of a residential occupancy at 1075 Main St. While responding in your vehicle, you listen for a radio transmission that will give you the first-due engine’s arrival report. Suddenly Engine 1 breaks radio silence: “Engine 1 to dispatch. We are on the scene of a threestory occupied building. Heavy smoke showing first floor.’’ It will be 10 minutes before you arrive on the scene.
You hear another engine and ladder company arrive. The officer on the second engine calls for a second alarm. The dispatcher sends another engine and a ladder from a nearby community. Off-duty firefighters who have been monitoring the frequency rush to the scene to assist.
On arrival, you see that conditions have changed. There is heavy black smoke on all three floors. You report to the officer in charge to get additional information and you take responsibility for incident command. The officer confirms that there is a heavy fire condition in the basement and that firefighters are searching the second floor for occupants. Firefighters already have rescued three occupants from the third floor with ladders.
About 18 minutes have passed since the time of the alarm, and all the occupants have been accounted for. Suddenly, an officer reports to you that a section of the first floor just collapsed and the fire is burning through the main stairwell leading to the second and third floors. Soon after you order all members out of the building, a firefighter reports hearing a pack alarm from a self-contained breathing apparatus ringing faintly on the second floor in the northeast corner of the building. Firefighters quickly rush up the ladder, knowing that one of their brothers is in serious trouble. They locate the unconscious firefighter who’s out of air, drag him 15 feet to a window, and pass him to a firefighter on the ladder. Once on the ground, he is rushed to the hospital.
Then a man comes up to you and identifies himself as the father of one of the firefighters. He wants to know where his son is—he watched him run into the burning building when the alarm first came in and has not seen him since. You issue a general broadcast for all fire officers on the fireground to account for their personnel and report back to the command post. While waiting for their response, you receive word that the firefighter who was taken to the hospital has died. You have an empty feeling inside as the officers begin to report. Some can account for their personnel, but others have no idea who came to the fire. The man’s son is unaccounted for. It’s been almost an hour since his father saw him enter the building. You order the firefighters to search for him. Several minutes later they find his lifeless body two floors above the fire—with no air in his pack and his facepiece off.
The next morning, you hire an independent safety firm to investigate the problems that led to the deaths of the two firefighters. The investigation reveals that the two deceased firefighters had been off duty and responded to the fire in their own vehicles. They arrived moments after the first-due engine, donned protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatus, and entered the building without reporting to an officer in charge. They became trapped on the second floor when the stairwell burned out, and they ran out of air. The investigation concludes that this tragedy could have been avoided if the firefighters had followed some basic standard operating procedures.
Let’s examine some basic procedures that could have prevented this tragedy.
Response to alarms. Keep tabs on offduty firefighters by requiring them to respond first to the station and then ride to the scene in fire apparatus with a leader. If they must respond directly to the scene, they need to carry protective clothing with them and to check in with the officer in charge on arrival for attendance taking and assignments.
On-duty firefighters are considerably easier to keep track of. Their names are recorded when they report for duty, and most likely they have been assigned to apparatus with an officer to supervise and track their location.
Protective clothing and equipment. Basic protective equipment for firefighters should consist of a helmet with eye protection, a hood, a coat, gloves, bunker pants, boots or hip boots, and self-contained breathing apparatus. All should meet OSHA requirements and NFPA 1500 standards. A personal alert device that signals for immediate assistance is also needed.
Accounting for interior-operating personnel. A number of systems can account for fire personnel while they perform interior fire operations, but whichever one you choose should address the same fundamental safety requirements necessary to help safeguard fire personnel during emergencies. Your accountability system must track who is entering the hazard, the air pressure of the breathing apparatus cylinder, time of entry into toxic or airdeficient atmosphere, length of stay, who they are working with, and how many cylinders they have used. In addition, OSHA requires that there be a method for communicating with the interior crews and that the buddy system be used while performing operations inside. OSHA defines the buddy system as organizing employees in such a manner that each employee is observed by at least one other employee for rapid assistance in the event of an emergency.
Remember that departments in OSHA states must have and use accountability procedures in accordance with OSHA regulations—failure to do so is in violation of state and/or federal laws. Furthermore, departments that are not technically bound by OSHA regulations or choose not to implement NFPA 1500 recommendations run a serious risk of being held liable by a court of law for firefighter deaths and injuries simply on the basis that the regulation or standard exists.
Chief Alan V. Brunacini of the Phoenix Fire Department estimates that of the some 35,000 fire departments in this country, fewer than 500 use SOPs during emergencies—that while more than that may have SOPs, they don’t train with them, use them, enforce them, or correct them when necessary. Regardless of the exact number, it is obvious that the majority of departments are not using accountability SOPs on the fireground. Think about the fire departments in your own area. Do they have accountability SOPs in place?
Before entering the fire zone, firefighters should report to a designated area on the perimeter. They should be fully protected, be part of a crew, and have a leader. This is a simple way to know who is in the fire zone.
As part of SOP, all personnel should have Velcro name tags attached to the collars of their turnout coats. When entering toxic or oxygen-deficient atmospheres, they should give the name tags to a control person—a safety officer, a pump operator, or someone assigned by the officer in charge. Using a clipboard with Velcro attached to the bottom side, a clock, and a pad of paper or chart, the control person should attach the Velcro name tags to the bottom of the clipboard, record air cylinder pressure, record name and entry time, record time expected out, indicate who the team member is, and record how many cylinders have been used for each individual. It is important for the control person to assign an entry and exit control point. If there is more than one point, someone must be assigned to each point of entry for control.
If the firefighter does not make contact with the control person at the expected time, a communication check should be made and recorded. If contact is not made, the control person should send in a backup team and notify the incident commander immediately. One of the following methods can be used for communicating: visual, voice (radio communication), lifelines, hoselines, and personnel alert devices (used as a last resort—activated when you are motionless for approximately 30 seconds or activated manually for emergency help).
All members, from incident commander to firefighters, are responsible for following these SOPs. Procedures will not protect firefighters from every life-threatening situation. However, having approved equipment and a procedure for personnel control and accountability will enhance the safety of every firefighter in the danger zone.