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Fireground Accountability – A ‘System’ to Keep Firefighters Safe

By Phoenix Battalion Chief Brian Parks
FDSOA Western Director

Fireground accountability is a system that is used to track the location of fire crews while operating in the hot zone on the emergency scene. All too often, the lack of an accountability system is listed as a contributing factor in NIOSH line-of-duty death reports.

The Phoenix Fire Department, and the 20-plus fire departments that jointly provide automatic aid coverage to the Phoenix Metro area, uses a “passport” accountability system. A passport is a small plastic card approximately 3 by 4 inches in size that identifies the fire company designation. A strip of Velcro affixed to each passport allows individual nametags to be placed on each passport that reflects the individual crewmembers who are assigned or working on a particular apparatus that day.

Passports are updated at the beginning of each duty shift and placed in a passport pouch on the apparatus dashboard until they are used at the fire scene. A hose line identification (ID) tag is also kept with the passport on the apparatus dash.

When the first unit arrives on the fire scene, an on-the-scene report is given on the radio. This report contains information on building and fire conditions, as well as initial actions taken. The location of the initial accountability location is announced, which is the engine where the crew deployed their hose line. When the engineer charges the stretched hose line with water, the units containing the passport, pouch and hose ID tag are placed on the discharge gate at the pump panel.

Accountability station
The passports on the discharge gates identify crews and crewmembers on each hose line, make it easier for engineers to identify which hose line to change pump pressure, and allows the pump panel to be used as an accountability station for the engineer to track companies. The engineer of that crew assumes the duties of the initial accountability officer and uses the passports to track the crews and crewmembers on the interior of the structure for that geographic area of the fire.

When a second hose line is deployed from the original engine, that crew’s passport is brought to the engineer of the first truck, and the passport is placed on the respective discharge gate, just like the first passport. This arrangement provides a good foundation to maintain firefighter accountability on the scene. When the engineer finishes charging hose lines and securing a water supply from a hydrant, the hose ID tags are removed from the passport at the discharge gate, and placed on each respective hose line by the truck. The hose line ID tags identify the hose line on which each crew entered the building, and provides a reference point for the rescue crew to enter the building to find lost or trapped firefighters.

Accountability includes much more than a hardware tracking system and must be addressed by all levels at the incident.

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Battalion chiefs and their field incident technicians (FITS) are frequently assigned to manage the critical sectors at fire incidents. This arrangement allows each captain to directly supervise his or her crew, while the battalion chief manages multiple companies in a specific geographic area. The field incident technician will assume safety sector responsibilities, which includes accountability. The field incident technician collects the passports from the initial accountability locations at the engine’s pump panels and tracks crew accountability closer to the building.

Firefighters wear full protective equipment while operating on the fire scene. While this equipment is necessary to protect their bodies from thermal insult, it makes it difficult to distinguish which firefighter is assigned to each crew without proper company identification. Helmet ID stickers are used to identify the company designation that each firefighter is assigned to. These stickers measure approximately 2 by 3 inches and are affixed to both sides of the firefighters’ helmets.

On the surface, the identifying of crewmembers by company identification may appear trivial, but in real life situations on the fireground, these company markings are essential to keep a crew together and intact. But while these company helmet ID stickers designate to which crew each firefighter belongs, it is still difficult to distinguish the individual identity of each crewmember. To provide a means to identify individual crewmembers, nametags are affixed to the back of firefighter’s helmet and to the self-contained breathing apparatus face-piece.

All levels
Accountability includes much more than a hardware tracking system and must be addressed by all levels at the incident. The incident commander addresses the strategic level of accountability by the tracking of all crews and sectors by location and function on a tactical worksheet. Command must know who is in charge of each sector, what crews are assigned to each sector, where each sector is located, and the assignment of each sector. Sector officers address the tactical level of accountability by tracking of crews assigned to their sector. Sector officers must know the location and function of assigned crews, and be in his/her assigned area to maintain close supervision of them.

Company officers address the task level of accountability and must know where each firefighter is located, and what each firefighter is doing. Accountability is everyone’s responsibility. All members operating on the incident must actively participate in the accountability system. Each person involved in an incident whether at the strategic, tactical, or task level of an incident must make a strong personal commitment to follow all policies and procedures regarding accountability.

On the fireground:

  • Crews should stay together and should enter and exit the building together.
  • Each crewmember should have a radio so that anyone can contact command to get help if he or she or any other crewmember is in trouble.
  • Accountability should be tracked at or near the point of entry to the building, and passports should never enter the hazard zone.
  • Passports must reflect only those personnel who are working in the hazard zone, and are turned in upon entering the hazard zone, and retrieved upon exiting the hazard zone.
  • Crews exiting at a different location other than the initial point of entry must immediately notify their sector officer and / or accountability officer of their changed status.

Personnel accountability reports (PARS) are radio reports that are periodically requested by command to ensure that each crew is intact and all crewmembers are accounted for. During the fire incident, PARs are requested by command at predetermined benchmarks. When a report is received by command that an “all clear” has been obtained, meaning that a search of the building has been completed and no occupants or victims are still inside. As the fire is brought under control, “fire control” is reported and a PAR is obtained.

Structural collapse and when changing from an offensive to a defensive strategy are also situations that require an accurate count to ensure that all personnel are accounted for and have safely exited the building. A PAR is also obtained anytime there is a report of a lost or trapped firefighter, at 30-minute elapsed time, and any other time that the incident commander deems an accounting of all firefighters is necessary.

An accountability system must be able to be integrated into any existing incident command system and it must be used at every incident and drill so that it becomes routine. Fire departments that respond with one another due to automatic or mutual aid agreement must use the same compatible accountability system. Systems that are not consistent or compatible in use will not allow firefighters to be effectively tracked on the scene. As a result, firefighter safety will be compromised. Fireground accountability is a simple and effective key component to keep firefighters safe while operating on the emergency scene.

Brian Parks joined the Phoenix Fire Department in 1980. As a battalion chief he manages the personnel section. Brian is the Western Director for FDSOA and the past chair of the Valley Safety Officers Committee, which is a regional group organized to maintain consistency in addressing safety issues in the valley. Brian holds a Bachelors Degree in Industrial Supervision and a Masters Degree in Fire Service Administration from Arizona State University. He is a certified Incident Safety Officer and Health and Safety Officer through the FDSOA.

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