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  Personnel Accountability

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Some of us are old enough to remember the days of the “smoke eaters”, firefighters who would go into smoke-filled environments without an S.C.B.A. There was a time when they were admired for being “tough”, but today, we realize that it’s just foolish to not take advantage of modern safety equipment – not to mention the legal and health ramifications. Today’s S.C.B.A.s are lightweight, offer an excellent field of vision, have integrated PASS devices, and some even provide air management information in heads-up displays. The improvements in this area have been extraordinary, and have greatly improved firefighter safety and survivability.

Similarly, there was a time when a firefighter would brag about how much heat he or she was able to withstand, which would even escalate into fire ground competitions over how deep into the fire they were able to get. Today’s turn-out gear makes use of high-tech materials such as carbon hoods and gloves, offering firefighters protection even in extreme environments, allowing deeper access without the macho risk-taking. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a time and place for competition. It’s just not on the fire ground, where taking an unnecessary chance can literally cost a good firefighter their life.

Of course, changes in equipment often require changes in operations. For example, new turnout gear does such an excellent job of isolating firefighters from heat, we actually lose some of the ‘cues’ we used to rely on (like that tingle in your ears) to warn us of dangerous situations. To balance this loss, the fire service continues to introduce new and innovative techniques (positive pressure ventilation, better coordination between vent and attack) and equipment (positive pressure fans, vent saws such as the K-12, and chain saws with carbide chains) that allow us to remove smoke and heat much more effectively. This not only addresses the immediate dangers, but also reduces the chance of flashover, back draft, steam burns, and similar critical risks.

Of course, nothing creates an adrenaline rush like the rescue call: occupants of a structure are trapped and need extraction. This is the core of firefighting: saving lives. Heroic as it may have been, gone are the days when a firefighter rushes in single handedly through the flames: today’s responders follow the two-in/two-out rule, stay on the hose line, stay on the wall, and always maintaining team contact. These are the fundamental rules that offer first responders the greatest opportunity to execute a successful rescue, and they train extensively under low-to-zero visibility, high heat/steam/smoke, and crowded, multi-level environments to mimic real-life scenarios. And again, modern equipment has helped make rescues even more safe and effective: thermal imaging cameras (TICs), beacons and self-rescue tools, just to name a few.

On-scene personnel accountability is another area that has seen some progress, although it’s been more limited than other areas. For decades now, most fire departments have been using variations of the ID tag system, typically multi-part devices that are manually passed from responder to officer, and moved around on a tag board to track locations and assignments. Clearly, this is a step forward from note pads and memory, but it has been at best a limited success. Chiefs and Safety Officers routinely complain about the amount of attention a tag system requires to keep it accurate. Many openly admit that their on-scene personnel accountability is inadequate under even routine conditions, and that they’re “lucky” that nothing catastrophic has happened. Others haven’t been so lucky, and have experienced firsthand the difficulty of trying to recreate personnel movement and assignments during the investigation of an injury or death, and having to determine whether better accountability could have averted or lessened the severity of the event.

Just as the fire service has grown from idolizing the smoke eaters and heat seekers to adopting tools and technologies to improve operations and safety for all responders, the time has come for Fire Officers to understand that personnel accountability – knowing who and what is on scene, and where they are right now – has a direct impact on the safety of every firefighter, and to recognize that memory, tag boards and hand-written notes are no substitute for properly applied technology.


As noted above, most departments today use some variation on ID tag-based accountability. Unfortunately, these systems tend to be resource-heavy, requiring close attention and dedicated personnel to collect, return, and arrange tags as firefighters move around and change assignments. While some departments have the resources available to dedicate to managing tags, most do not. Early in the incident is especially difficult, since all personnel are needed for operational tasks and no one is left to collect and manage tags. Tags that are turned in generally wind up in a pile somewhere, and without someone to remind them, some firefighters simply forget – a firefighter walking around with their tag still hanging off of their helmet is a common sight. Although “better than nothing,” an unattended pile of tags can only confirm who is on scene, with no detail about location or assignment. After sufficient personnel have arrived on scene and a firefighter is finally assigned accountability, they often find it’s all but impossible to get the system organized and accurate.

In addition, tag systems typically require that responders report changes in assignment and location via radio, so that the accountability officer can update the tag board as appropriate. In addition to the traditional “forgot to call in” issues, this encounters another well-known problem: radio breakdowns due to heavy traffic and dead spots. When communication fails, the accountability board isn’t updated and quickly becomes inaccurate; in the best case, outdated information is just useless, but at the worst, it’s outright dangerous. Aside from simply knowing where your firefighters are, it’s critical to know their timeline: extended periods in the hot zone and/or time without rehabilitation can a be direct, even fatal, hazard (approximately 50% of all firefighter fatalities are from heart attack attributable to overexertion, NFPA 1584 ).


It’s hard to overstate the importance of accurate, effective, and real-time personnel accountability, yet responders widely admit the limitations and failures of current systems. So why haven’t firefighters and Chief Officers demanded a better solution? Well, there are a variety of reasons:

Time Heals . Research clearly shows that in a majority of after-injury reports, lack of effective accountability is at least a contributing factor, and Chiefs tell us that when such an event occurs, personnel accountability almost always jumps into the spotlight. Questions come up about operating procedures (and why they weren’t followed), and demands made that “something be done”. However, memories are short and thankfully, serious incidents are rare; as time passes and no other incidents occur, the importance of good personnel accountability seems to fade... until the next incident.

Force of Habit. Inertia plays a big role: Chiefs will continue to use a system, even knowing it is ineffective, simply out of a desire to stay in their comfort zone. Uprooting and replacing an established way of doing things is disruptive and difficult, and the longer the current system has been in place, the more difficult that change becomes. Therefore, departments tend to justify current methods and blame S.O.P. failures rather than considering brand-new solutions, even in view of obvious advantages.

Fewer Fire Runs.
Today’s Fire Inspectors are armed with aggressive fire codes, backed with new tools and educational opportunities that result in better fire preparedness and prevention. As a result, many departments are experiencing a decrease in the number of fires calls: obviously excellent for the community, but as a side effect, it reduces the amount of direct firefighting experience that responders gain over time. Increased and improved training helps mitigate that lost experience, but as the old adage goes, “you lose what you don’t use.” This applies just as much to fire ground activities such as accountability management as it does to specific firefighting and rescue skills and techniques.

Nothing has Happened (Yet). Sadly, the fact that no firefighters have (recently) been injured or killed at a given department can become an excuse to accept inertia, avoiding the work and expense of changing to new, better methods and equipment. They become OK with tracking some of the firefighters some of the time and “playing the odds” since it’s easy and hasn’t been a problem. A quick search of “personnel accountability” at www.firefighternearmiss.com clearly demonstrates why this attitude is so dangerous: just like a smoke detector in your home, you may never need it, but it suddenly becomes invaluable when you do. It’s also worth a visit to http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/ to review some investigative reports, which routinely cite the lack of an effective personnel accountability system as a contributing factor in many in-action fatalities. As you might imagine, “this never happened before” is a pretty weak position to take when facing an investigator.

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