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Rules of Engagement for Incident Commanders: Ensure Accurate Accountability

Ensure Accurate Accountability of Every Firefighter's Location and Status

Objective: To cause the incident commander and command-organization officers to maintain a constant and accurate accountability of the location and status of all firefighters within a small geographic area within the hazard zone and to remain aware of who is presently in or out of the building.

All fire departments must adopt a legitimate and recognized firefighter-accountability system. Key components of a system include the ability to accurately know which firefighters are presently in a building and which are out. The system must also be able to identify, within a small geographic area of operation, where every firefighter is located at any moment in time.

It means that in order to maintain accuracy, accountability must be managed at the points of entry by a dedicated member; what's more, that dedicated member must remain outside the building. A recognized system includes tags, passports or other means of documentation that are maintained at the points of entry. A collection of ID tags at the command post only means the incident commander (IC) has a collection of names of potential fatalities.

Initially, the engineer/pump operator of each engine company to each point of entry (or supplying fire attack lines to points of entry) should assume the accountability responsibility. His or her engine just happens to be supplying an attack line that goes to a point of entry, sometimes supplying attack lines to more than one point of entry. As the incident escalates and more resources arrive on scene, firefighters should turn in their tags or passports to the pump operator supplying their assigned attack line.

As soon as possible, a dedicated member should be assigned accountability responsibilities, stationed at each entry point. This could be a staff or chief officer or you may split up a company and send members to different points of entry to assume accountability duties. ID tags must be collected at the point of entry by the accountability officer. As firefighters exit the building (for example, to refill his SCBA), they must retrieve their tags. Upon reentering the building, the tag is turned back over to the accountability officer.

The system must include personnel accountability reports (PARs) at appropriate benchmarks during the incident to confirm all is well with firefighters operating in the hazard zone. These include a PAR at 30 minutes on scene (about the time the first wave of firefighters will be running out of air), anytime a hazardous event occurs on the fireground (such as a flashover or a partial collapse), immediately after crews are ordered out of the building, when the fire is declared under control and anytime the IC desires.

Ensuring accurate firefighter accountability doesn't mean the IC becomes directly involved in managing the system. It does mean he or she is responsible for ensuring the command team has implemented an effective accountability system and it’s functioning properly.

Another important component to the accountability system is the tactical worksheet. It isn't, in itself, an accountability system, but it does serve as an accountability support system. This document should be initiated at the outset of operations, logging where fire companies or crews are assigned on the fireground. It also serves as an effective briefing tool as command is transferred to a senior officer or the operations section chief is implemented.

Part of the IC’s responsibility to firefighter accountability is his or her ability to listen and hear communications clearly; he or she must be able to hear a mayday call. At the report of any mayday, the IC must know where all crews are operating on the fireground and thus mandates that a PAR be initiated immediately. This is needed to identify which firefighters and how many may be lost or trapped. A multiple alarm (or equivalent mutual aid) must also be requested immediately.

Firefighter-accountability information is also important for rapid intervention teams (RITs). The accountability system must be able to quickly provide firefighter locations to the RIT. Any RIT members entering the building in response to a mayday must also turn in their ID tags or passports.

Bottom line: If you don’t have an accountability system in place or you don’t know where firefighters are, don’t commit to interior operations.

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