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  Personnel Accountability

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Fire Department Administrators face unique challenges in pursuit of their goal of providing the highest levels of service, as demanded by city managers and members of the public. The range of services provided by Fire Departments continues to grow, expanding to include emergency medical services and special hazards, all while having to meet increased federal training requirements (N.I.M.S. in particular) with ever-diminishing resources.

As administrators, Chief Officers recognize that fiscal responsibility is a key component of successful department management. Fiscal responsibility means spending budget dollars wisely, evaluating needs and prioritizing them based on how each assists the department in accomplishing its mission. The department exists to provide the highest level of professional emergency services possible to the public, but the Chief must understand that meeting this goal also requires a strong commitment to the safety of his or her firefighters. The chief has both a moral and legal obligation to provide every member of the team with the training and equipment they need to do their jobs safely and effectively.

A crucial, but often overlooked building block in the foundation of fire ground safety is personnel acc ountability, defined as “a system that readily identifies both the location and function of all members operating at an incident scene” (NFPA 1500 , NFPA 1561 ; Definitions). Note that the definition does not state that the chief should attempt or try to identify personnel and assignments, yet that’s how it is often approached: many departments rely on variations of ID tag and radio procedures (one, two or three tag systems), whiteboards, or even memory, in an attempt to manage personnel accountability, usually with very limited results.

Unfortunately, research and anecdotal evidence has shown that although Chief Officers acknowledge that current accountability systems are burdensome or ineffective, and while they understand the benefits that an effective personnel accountability solution delivers (most importantly, increased firefighter safety and operational efficiency), these same professionals have been slow to adopt, or even demand, potential solutions. Fortunately, the influx of technological solutions in the areas of SCBAs, Thermal Imaging Cameras, GIS Mapping, Fire Pre-Planning, Automated Dispatch, and so on, has increased the understanding and acceptance of technological solutions in fire response. We believe it is time to employ similar existing and proven technologies as a viable solution to the crucial, yet often marginalized, issue of on-scene accountability.


ERT Systems’ founding mission is very simple: deliver an effective, easy-to-use solution to the professional Fire Chief who recognizes that personnel accountability has a direct and immediate effect on the safety and efficiency of their responders.

To accomplish this goal, we began by examining the current state of personnel accountability systems in use by fire departments across the United States and Canada. Our objective was to determine whether a problem really exists, and if so, to gather reliable, real-world data “from the trenches” that we could use to design a truly useable solution.

Right away, we came across a startling statistic: when asked “Do you use a formal personnel accountability system on scene?” the respondents answered:

  •  Never 18%
  •  Sometimes 23%
  •  Usually 49%
  •  Always 10%
As unexpected as it was to find that nearly 1 in 5 Chiefs say they use no “formal” accountability system at all, further questioning showed that of the 80% who do employ a formal system, virtually all use ID tags which they further stated are “frequently or almost always” ineffective.

When questioned as to why they consider their accountability system to be ineffective, the following issues were cited:

  • Tags are not handled properly:

    •  Firefighters lose their tags off scene, or simply forget to bring them
    •  They do not always follow procedure to turn in and retrieve tags
    •  Tags can be lost or misplaced (dropped) while on scene
  •  Tag boards are not managed effectively:
    • Early in an incident, everyone is committed to operations
      •  The board is not set up properly, and tags are just dumped in a pile
      •  The “pile” only shows who is on scene, not Locations or Functions
    • Once a Safety Officer is available:
      • It is nearly impossible to “catch-up”, so the board remains in a state of chaos for a long period
      • Firefighters still do not reliably report changes in Location or Assignment, keeping the information unreliable

      • (Note that these issues scale dramatically with larger scenes.)

  • Tag systems still rely on radio communication

    • Radio “dead spots” and periods of heavy traffic may keep firefighters from reporting changes in Location or Assignment

  • Tag boards offer no historical tracking or timekeeping

    • SOs must still rely on manual counts to monitor time in Hot Zone, what firefighters have been through Rehab ( NFPA 1584 ), etc.
    • Post-incident analysis and after-action reports are limited to memory or notes written down on-scene “when there is time”

While it is commendable that many of these same Fire Departments have written S.O.G.s (Standard Operating Guidelines or Procedures) for personnel accountability, the Chiefs note that actually putting an S.O.G. into practice on the fire ground is a continual and ongoing challenge. The ultimate goal of any accountability S.O.G. is to provide for the systematic tracking of every firefighter on scene, in real-time, for the duration of the event. Unfortunately, the combination of limited tools and the chaotic nature of any emergency scene conspire to make those S.O.G.s difficult to follow (or enforce), often rendering them ineffective.

The consensus was for a personnel accountability system to be more effective, it would have to address and eliminate most of the issues that plague tag-based systems, but that remained extremely easy to use and did not interfere with their departments’ emergency operations and standard procedures.

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