Fireground Accountability

We know that freelancing kills firefighters; however, with proper training and the use of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the practice has largely been halted.

One issue that continues to plague the fire service is accountability. Why isn’t there a national standard for accountability? This has always troubled me, because you would think that keeping track of firefighters on the fireground would be a priority. All incident commanders (ICs) would say it’s a major priority, but it seems more and more as if it isn’t.

System Breakdown
Time and time again, NIOSH LODD reports expose breakdowns in the accountability system. The findings all seem to reveal the same thing: The IC was unaware of the location of the firefighter or the task the firefighter was performing.

As a fire service, we have to solve this issue—and solve it fast. I know that change is slow and hard to accept, but when it comes to knowing who’s on the rig, the task assigned to the rig, and the location of the rig and its personnel, “slow” becomes dangerous.

As a career and volunteer firefighter, as well as an adjunct faculty member at a local college where I teach fire classes, I’m in contact with firefighters from many different departments, and I’m always amazed at how many different accountability systems are in use, not to mention the number of departments that don’t use any.

ICs will tell you that they have a lot to deal with while in command, making it easy to sometimes forget about accountability. Or, they may not want to deal with it because the system is too complex or their mutual-aid departments use a system that the IC is unfamiliar with. These excuses are unacceptable. Honestly, you forgot about accountability? How can an IC forget about the most important thing on the fireground—their firefighters? This is a major reason why firefighters go missing on the fireground and are found too late.

When I first started in the fire service, there weren’t any accountability systems used regularly on the fireground. At the time, freelancing was the norm in my department; we were lucky that no one was seriously hurt or killed. But times have changed and we’ve learned that tracking firefighters is a priority. Thus, the accountability system was born.

Problems began to arise when different departments and counties started providing mutual aid. Accountability systems were designed to best fit their department, and the mutual-aid departments that responded for assistance were not taken into account. Every fire department “reinvented the wheel” and created their own system and issues.

Multiple Systems
As an IC, I’ve had my own challenges when it comes to the use of accountability systems, in both my career and volunteer fire departments. In my career department, the main issue is that there are six different accountability systems in use by the surrounding departments that we respond with on mutual aid. The major problem with my volunteer fire department is the lack, or improper use, of an accountability system.

Another issue: the reporting of information on the fireground. NIOSH LODD reports have shown that crews sometimes split up to handle multiple tasks, but they don’t notify the IC or the accountability officer so they can update the accountability system to track them. While that information must be shared so that ICs can protect firefighter, the incorrect use of an accountability system, or the complete lack of one, poses a major danger to firefighter safety.

So how do we fix this problem? How do we strive for a standardized system that could meet the needs of both larger and smaller departments and incorporate mutual aid, yet be affordable and easy to use? Am I just wishing on a shooting star that one day accountability will no longer be an issue for an incident commander?

Well, I’m not one for leaving questions unanswered, so I suggest that we start small and keep building. We should work with the U.S. Fire Administration to create a system that will link into NIMS and be taught in every fire academy nationwide as part of the curriculum. Remember: We must hold ourselves accountable for our actions before we can ask anyone else to be accountable for us on the fireground.

Final Words
I challenge every firefighter, regardless of rank, to stand up, make your department accountable, and use an accountability system 100% of the time—no excuses. Our goal should be to never let another firefighter die on the fireground because we didn’t know what they were doing or where to find them.