Communication & Personnel Accountability for ICs

Personnel accountability on the emergency scene is a critical function for incident commanders (ICs). Accountability involves two components: crew number and physical location. Knowing the location of all personnel, especially those in the hazard zone, justifiably occupies a significant portion of an IC’s attention and concern. This can drain their energy when the emergency is in the throes of dynamic fire attack activities.

Once personnel enter the immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) area, they begin to lose “connectivity” with the IC. This loss of connectivity is the result of a number of obvious (and some surprising) factors:
•    Visual obscuration due to permanent physical barriers like building walls;
•    Transient barriers like smoke;
•    Rapid-fire messages from multiple teams that fail to provide the IC a chance to reply; and
•    Disrupted communications due to physical barriers, such as speaking through the SCBA facepiece or the sounds of fire attack (i.e., water flowing, walls being opened, firefighters knocking into objects and each other).

The IC’s stress level escalates as they attempt to communicate with the unseen teams and doesn’t get an immediate reply. If not shielded in a command platform that blocks out the exterior cacophony (radio echoing, engines pumping, etc.), the IC strains to decipher muffled Conditions, Actions, Needs (CAN) reports transmitted through SCBA facepieces.

The interior crews can also suffer from communication frustrations as they attempt to let command know what is going on, but get stepped on by other units or the IC asking them to repeat their message again and again. All of these interruptions of the communication chain affect accountability. Seconds can seem like minutes—minutes like hours. The longer it takes for conversion to be observed by the IC, the higher the anxiety level rises in the command post. This anxiety is true even when the IC has full comprehension of interior crews’ operating location. And then, about the time the IC gets ready to conduct their first personal accountability report (PAR) to confirm that the tactical worksheet has correct crew locations, someone calls a mayday. Whether the next few minutes will be controlled or out of control are a matter of how well the crews prepared for the mayday declaration, and how aware the IC is about crew numbers and locations.

Near-Miss Report #12-070 provides some valuable insight into the importance of accountability.

Report Excerpt
“While fighting a fire on the second floor in a single-family residence, one firefighter had one leg fall through the floor and was temporarily trapped. His captain immediately issued a mayday. Command acknowledged the mayday, deployed the RIT, and requested additional resources and notifications. Interior crews were able to remove the trapped firefighter utilizing hand tools already inside the structure. … PARs were completed per guideline for normal firefighting operations and mayday situations. Accountability was critical.

“The company involved with the mayday was the first company on scene, with the second company arriving seconds behind the first. The first company issued a brief incident report, established command and made an interior attack. They reported heavy smoke from the C side of the structure. The second engine company ‘bypassed’ RIT due to time of day and vehicles in the driveway. This was communicated to the responding battalion chief (BC) and communications. … The BC (responding from the other side of the city) arrived on scene, assumed command and assigned the engine companies to the interior division. Interior crews gave reports. A truck company (two personnel) arrived on scene at the approximate time of the BC and was assigned to secure utilities. The third engine arrived on scene and was assigned as the safety officer and RIT. All department engine companies are paramedic units with a minimum staffing of four. The normal response to a structure fire is three engines, one truck, one battalion chief and one ambulance (provided by two contract companies within the city for transport). Normally the second-arriving engine automatically assumes safety and RIT based upon department SOGs … Once the firefighter was in rehab and roll call accountability reports were completed, ‘normal’ firefighting operations resumed.

“Immediately prior to the firefighter falling through the floor, he had noticed the floor felt ‘spongy,’ and he had just communicated this to his captain when he fell through. There was no fire underneath room of origin, which was determined to be a bedroom on the second floor. Farther into bedroom, there was a larger hole approximately five feet from where the firefighter fell through along an interior wall. The occupants had left earlier in the morning for a trip.”

The accountability telescope used on the fireground aligns on three settings: individual accountability (task level), company accountability (tactical) and scene accountability (strategic). When an officer establishes command and operates in the fast attack mode, individual and company accountability are non-negotiable. All other crews arriving must take their assigned positions so that when the scene boss arrives (the strategic thinker), accountability is established quickly and seamlessly. This is the only way the arriving scene boss can determine accountability quickly, assume command properly, ensure the fire attack is underway and, if a mayday is called, it can be quickly addressed.

Establishing SOPs on hazard zone operations is essential. These SOPs form the “playbook” for handling the fire and need to have some flexibility to account for the unknown. However, accountability has to be ironclad.

Training in context is another valuable method. When we use the phrase “in context,” we’re talking about realistic, repetitive, scenario-based training. This methodology ensures that your accountability system will provide the necessary assurance that all personnel are where they are supposed to be and where they say they are. Practicing the accountability scenario frequently needs to be a major component of any fire department’s drill schedule for its officers, just as donning SCBA, advancing handlines and throwing ladders are critical repetitive training sessions for firefighters. In addition, incident scenes that are not dynamic (e.g., automatic fire alarms where no smoke or fire is found, odors of smoke with no fire, malfunctioning alarms) can be used as opportunities to practice accountability.

Prevention & Closing
Personnel accountability is one of the most important aspects of fireground operations. From the individual perspective and the company perspective, it’s not enough to just say you know where personnel are. In terms of accountability, the IC must have full understanding of where you are. Following SOPs and providing timely and relevant CAN reports help that understanding.

From the strategic perspective, adding eyes and ears to the incident scene and command post are essential for ensuring accountability and reducing the potential for calamity. The extra eyes and ears enhance command’s role in ensuring members are engaging in a calculated fire attack, progress is being made, risk is being managed, and the incident is proceeding efficiently to fire-out status. Assigning groups and divisions early reduces radio traffic, and assembling a command team in the command post divides the work so incident progress can be charted and personnel accountability can be maintained.

The overarching issues for the IC: 1) to maintain strong control of emotions; 2) to be well prepared prior to the incident; and 3) to ensure responding crews are well aware of SOPs and follow them. Addressing the first two issues promotes a confidence in the IC that leads to strong command presence. Addressing the final issue ensures crews approach the incident scene as professionals. When all is said and done, accountability at the individual, company and scene levels is confirmed, promoting the best opportunity for everyone to go home.


Lt. Brian Meroney on accountability:

Two-part article on accountability by Captains Dan Miller and Chris Langlois:

•    Compilation of mayday calls:
•    Chicago FD 2010 mayday call, double LODD:
•    Helmet cam captures bailout and mayday:
•    Houston 2007 Mayday, Part 1:
•    Houston 2007 Mayday, Part 2:
•    Allentown 2013 mayday:
•    Bedford 2011 mayday:
•    Chicago FD “Everyone Goes Home”:

Clarion UX