A review of the NIOSH firefighter fatality reports shows that a contributing factor to many of these tragic deaths was an ineffective use of a personnel accountability system—or no system at all! But just because we have identified this as a problem does not mean that the solution will come easy. Many good fire departments wrestle with how to handle personal accountability on the fireground. And through my experience with such departments, and after many trials and tribulations, I’ve come to the conclusion a comprehensive approach is needed to develop a functional system.
With that in mind, following are the four keys to a successful accountability system, as I see them:
- Selecting the right system
- A clear set of operational guidelines
- Effective training
- Guideline enforcement
Selecting the Right System
There are as many different systems as there are opinions as to which one is best. In the simplest form, a riding roster can be used for accountability. In this system, the officer would fill out two copies of the roster at shift change. A copy would be put on the dashboard of the apparatus, and other copy would be kept with the officer. At an incident scene, the IC could have the rosters collected and brought to the command post. The IC would know who is at the incident, what unit they are assigned to, and who their supervisor is. This system is very easy to implement with little costs. The problem is that this system is designed for situations where staffed units respond from fixed sites. The system does not work well when individual members respond as single resources from home.
Tag systems have been around for a while and involve the use of what I call “cow tags” to track a member’s movement at an emergency scene. Cow tags are fairly easy to implement. A supply of plastic blanks and a good label maker is all you really need to get into business. One of the major drawbacks with cow tags is the multitude of versions that have been developed. Some agencies use a single-tag system; some use a two-tag system, and I have even heard of three- and four-tag systems. When adopting your system, you should ensure that there’s a consistent standard for all your automatic/mutual-aid departments. If one department is using a two-tag system and another is using a three-tag system, there could be problems.
The passport system is another option. This system started uses small Velcro-backed name tags and a plastic unit identifier passport. All members “tag-on” to the passport. Policy can dictate that either the officer or engineer “tag on” in a way that clearly identifies a position. As an example, the officer would place their name tag upside-down as compared to the others. A quick look at the passport would easily identify the supervisor. As with the other systems, multiple passports could be issued to a company. One could stay with the apparatus and then be collected and moved to the command post. Another passport could be kept with the officer, allowing them to “tag in” with a division/group supervisor. This system works for both on-duty, station-based resources as well as responding-from-home volunteers/paid on-call agencies.
As technology advances, the fire service is starting to see other options to accountability. Barcode readers have been around for awhile, and we’re starting to see elements in SCBA that could possibly be incorporated into accountability systems. As critical of an issue as this, I strongly suggest that command officers keep abreast of the new technologies.
In the end, many factors play into which system you will use. There are times and situations where it is entirely appropriate to use what I call the “Chief’s Prerogative” (i.e., this is what we are going to do because I say so), and there are certainly times when this approach can hinder the process. An effective accountability system is such a critical segment of the firefighter safety and survival profile that I strongly recommend the use of consensus-building when choosing an accountability system. We all have a limited amount of time and energy, so we want to maximize the likelihood of crews using the system.
Clear Set of Operational Guidelines
Once you decide on what system will best fit your needs and accomplish the task, you must write clear and defined operational guidelines. I remember a department that purchased tags and accountability boards, brought the equipment to a department meeting, passed out all the tags and declared this was the new accountability system. BUT, no guidelines were issued for how to actually use the system. Go ahead and take a guess about how effective that system was in tracking the department’s personnel. Effective operations, including accountability systems, are grounded in sound operational guidelines.
Once you define the system and how it will work, you must train your members. Training needs to go beyond classroom instructions. Here’s a suggestion: Suppose your department decides to do a “round-robin” skills session with multiple stations. You could break your members into work groups of approximately five firefighters and a supervisor, and have a command officer track the groups as they move from station to station. At some point in the drill, call an emergency evacuation. When all members report to the rally point, do a roll call, or personnel accountability report (PAR), and include the instructors as part of the roll call. This will allow everyone to see the system in operation and allow the command officers to develop skills in conducting the roll call/PAR. You can also do a roll call/PAR when you have multiple units respond to non-working incidents. You might also consider doing roll calls/PARs when clearing high-hazard alarm system calls.
You can do all the steps listed here correctly, but if you don’t enforce the system, then it’s useless. How often do you see photos of firefighters at working incidents with accountability tags hanging from their helmets? Maybe the system they have includes extra tags that aren’t needed at that incident—maybe. I bet the back of the helmet is where those tags have been hanging since they were issued. Enforcing policies can be very unpleasant, but it is critical. For those of you who say, “Don’t worry, chief, I’ll use my tags at the big one,” I can almost guarantee that you will not. Firefighters operate at the high-risk events just like they do at the so-called “routine” events. If you’ve gone through all the effort, you must now enforce your system or else it will all be for naught.
As a chief, I feel that have an absolute moral and ethical responsibility to safeguard the members assigned to my command. An effective accountability system is an absolute necessity for me to fulfill this responsibility. My experience tells me that the steps outlined here will help you accomplish this task.