Up until 1995, the term accountability system seemed like it would be a passing fad, much like spandex, big hair, and beta tapes. However, on February 14th, 1995, a tragic event killing 3 local firefighters seemed to change the way we thought about accountability. From there, the local fire services and the nation’s fire service worked to change the way we had been thinking. To this day, a lot of departments keep accountability to the forefront. And now there are quite a few accountability systems out there. No one system is better than the next. But I'm no salesman either. What makes it better for everyone however, is that one is in place. The key and the hope is that everyone will be accounted for. Hopefully this continues on forever.
Excuses and Investigations
I hope I am wrong, but I get a sense that some of us have fallen away from or have yet to implement the practice and utilization of an accountability system. It’s sad to get this sense. Still sadder are the excuses why an accountability system and accountability officer are not being provided for on a fireground, training ground or roadway incident. Excuses like: “We never needed to;” “We have no time to get one together;” “That sounds like a good idea in theory, but…… we have no one to dedicate to it, so we go without.” Please practice saying that last line, if you’re a commanding officer or a chief. Practice it so you’re ready, in case you have to inform a loved one of a line of duty death. Then prepare yourself. Prepare yourself for a backlash, which most likely will be inevitable. A recent NIOSH report of a 2014 incident once again cites that among other things, “Fire departments should ensure that the incident commander establishes a stationary command post for effective incident management, which includes the use of a tactical worksheet, efficient fireground communications, and a personnel accountability system.”
Unfortunately, there are many other reports like this. Just visit the NIOSH website. In many of those reports, you'll most likely find similar recommendations. And it's unfortunate that we as a collective fire service, have to read the same recommendations again. Do I mean to say that these firefighters wouldn’t have died had all that been in place? Nope. I don’t mean that. What I do mean to say is having a good incident command system structure in place, utilizing an accountability system, having a dedicated safety officer, all will work in tandem with other recommendations that these types of reports outline. And if we have that good work in tandem and solid teamwork, our line of duty deaths and injuries will decline.
Others Are Using It
Schools, nursing homes, some senior citizen high rises and many fire departments use an accountability system. If they can do it and manage, so can we all. An accountability system takes time, in order to be proficient. That’s not any different from the other skills we have learned as firefighters and officers. Think about what we are accountable for. Think about who we accountable to. Think about who is responsible for accountability. We are all responsible for accountability. Ultimately, it falls on the fire chief, whether that chief is present on the incident scene or not. We should all be looking out for each other. We’re accountable to our families, our crews, our chiefs and the citizens we serve. We’re accountable to save lives and protect property and that includes the lives and property of each other! We’re family, right? We’re in a “brotherhood”, I’m told. Here’s something else to think about. We should be used to it. We had an accountability system in place with our parents. If you’re a parent now, you probably have one in place with your child(ren). It’s really not something new. (Chiefs vs. Firefighters or Parents vs. Child) Parents have rules and expectations with their children. Chiefs have strategies to be implemented as tactics by their firefighters. Parents want their children to be safe. The same is true of chiefs and their firefighters. Children who do not call or check in with parents when diverting are the same as freelancing firefighters. Children who get caught, get grounded, or receive some other type of punishment. What happens to firefighters when they go astray? What happens when they cannot be accounted for? Well for starters, the integrity of the crew is lost. Expected tasks are not or may have not been completed. When those expected tasks are not completed, strategies and tactics fail. It could potentially lead to worsening conditions. And when that happens, we will see and receive more firefighter injuries and firefighter deaths, in the line of duty.
Misconceptions vs. (Reality)
Too difficult to implement
(Can easily be implemented)
(Time consuming? Injuries lead to lost time. Death is forever!)
“We didn’t have to do it before”.
(No. we didn't. But when should we try to prevent needless line of duty injuries and deaths?)
It costs money.
(Depends on complexity. Keep it simple.)
Can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
(Yes you can. It takes time.)
Mistakes will be made.
(Mistakes are made everyday, learn from them and move on.)
So, What Can We Do?
The Task/Position of an Accountability Officer
Having a good accountability system in place and a trained accountability officer to manage it is key to improving firefighter safety. When a firefighter team is assigned to a task and completes that task, they should either report via radio to the I.C. or in person to receive a new task and then make sure the accountability officer knows where and what they’re assigned to. In the event of a firefighter down (Mayday) situation, the last known location will be known by the accountability officer and can be relayed to the rapid intervention team. This is a good back up, especially if the firefighter is in a disoriented state and/or cannot recall the LUNAR acronym, because the firefighter is in the heat of a battle for his life, which includes an activated sympathetic nervous system response, as well as the fire itself. Effective accountability systems can help reduce injuries; reduce firefighter freelancing; reduce line of duty deaths; improve fireground operations and more importantly, improve firefighter safety. It does requires discipline. It does demand training with it for proficiency. It also demands that we implement an accountability system as a safe and best practice in all of our departments. We have lost too many already. We know this. And we know it needs to change. We’re used to change. Those who use to not wear breathing apparatus, do not do so now. Those who operated without a p.a.s.s. device, do not do so now. Those who have operated without a thermal imaging camera, do not do so now. Those who used to ride tailboard, don’t do that now. Those who used to wear hip boots, don’t do that now. Why? Because we have learned hard lessons. And there isn’t any lesson harder to learn than the lessons that have involved losing a brother or sister firefighter.