By David DeStefano
Maintaining accountability is front and center when it comes to importance in policy development, training, and fireground management. Individual firefighters are not allowed to freelance, company officers are trained to maintain accountability with their members, and chief officers are given a variety of tools with which to manage accountability of companies during an incident. Some of these resources include personnel accountability reports (PARs), situational reports (SITREPs), or even a full roll call of the incident. In addition to these tools, the incident commander (IC) may receive a transmission from the communications office advising him how much time has elapsed at specified intervals during an incident. This reminder helps the IC gauge progress relative to the safety of operating conditions and status of personnel.
These procedures work well for keeping track of the location and status of companies working on the fireground. However, the number of single-unit responses for most departments, especially those providing EMS, far exceeds the number of multiunit incidents. Many fire departments have no policy in place to monitor the status of units engaged during these incidents. The possibility exists that if a problem occurred and a member couldn’t transmit a Mayday message, assistance may be delayed for an extended period of time. This scenario is quite possible for medic units responding with a staff of two who routinely assess and treat patients inside buildings or in the back of a rig, out of public view. The communications office may be familiar with medic units spending long periods of time on scene for some calls before transporting to a hospital. Additionally, engine or truck companies responding to and investigating other types of incidents may have no need to transmit radio messages until they have mitigated the incident or require additional resources. Vigilant dispatchers may pick up on the fact that a company has been out of service for an uncharacteristically long time and call them on the radio, but during times of high-call volume, units may “fall through the cracks” as radio traffic increases.
Perhaps the best approach is to develop a policy outlining a status check for all single-unit responses. The communications office may be directed to prompt a single company at an incident after 20 minutes on scene without any radio traffic from that unit. This would ensure that personnel were reasonably close to receiving assistance at all times. The status marker may be based on jurisdictional preference and can vary by type of incident. A simple transmission from communications asking “Status check on Medic 5” with a response of “Medic 5 ok” would be sufficient.
The next logical question involves what type of help to send if a company doesn’t respond to a status check. This can also vary according to the resources and preference of the jurisdiction. It may include sending the police to check on a medic unit, with an additional medic or fire company staging in a safe location. In the case of a fire company investigating or operating at an incident, the assistance response may include another fire company and a battalion chief or other supervising officer.
The parameters of the automatic status check and the particulars of the assistance response may vary widely in jurisdictions across the country; however, the point is to treat accountability for single-unit responses with the same vigilance as we do larger incidents with a more fully developed incident management model.
David DeStefano is a 23-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as a lieutenant in Ladder Co. 1. He previously served as a lieutenant in Engine 3 and was a firefighter in Ladder 1. He teaches a variety of topics for the Rhode Island Fire Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.