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Accountability - Does your system work?
By Chief Ronald W. Richards
What is accountability? Ask people in the emergency service in different areas of the country you'll get a wide array of answers. Most people in the fire service are familar with the concept. Whether and if works is another story.

Simply put, accountability is a system to account for all fire fighters within a small geographic area, within the "hot zone" of an incident.  A 'hot zone" will differ based on the nature of the incident.  The reason for the accountablity system to is know at all times how many personel are working in a "hot zone".

Obviously, anytime we place firefighters in an IDLH atmosphere that would certainly be a hot zone. Meanwhile, if the mission poses the risk that a firefighter could become lost, trapped, or injured by the environment or structure those, too, would also be included as a "hot zones". High angle rescue, confined space, trench rescue or hazardous materials incidents would all have hot zones.
"Tags are not accountability"
Some folks think that tags are synonymous with accountability. We'd beg to differ. The photo ID  tag, velcro strip, piece of marked webbing, cow tag, ID tag or bar code card are merely a prop used to show who you are. If the tag stays on you when you enter the "hot zone" then there is a good chance that no one in the "cold zone" will know you are there.
If the tag stays on you when you enter the "hot zone" then there is a good chance that no one in the "cold zone"
will know you are there...."

Where does all this come from?
NFPA 1500 The Standard for Firefighter Health and Safety covers all aspects of safety and health in the fire service. 1500 requires an accountability system be utilized at all emergency incidents. NFPA 1561 The Standard for Fire Department Incident Management provides great detail on emergency scene management including accountability of firefighters. This standard requires that the incident commander maintain an "accountability and inventory worksheet" from the beginning to the end of an incident.

How is it done?
Does your department have an accountablity system? Ask that question and you will either get blank stares or multitude of answers why "our system is better" or "why we don't need that here...."

While there are various ways to keep track of your folks, the bottom line is educating them and holding individuals firefighters responsible to stay a part of a team. Their boss also needs to know where his personnel are operating at all times. The most critical time on the fireground is in the first twenty minutes, when resources may be light and command officers may still be in route. It there ever was a time when corners will be cut, this is it!

As a command structure expands then companies or teams who report to a sector officer need to be "accountable" to that individual.
Keeping track of the resources
The Personnel Accountability Report or PAR  is a roll call of personnel. From the team leader or company officer, a "PAR" is a confirmation that members assigned to his/her crew are visually accounted for. 

For the Sector Officer, a "PAR" is an accounting for all crew members of all companies assigned to his/her sector. If possible, PAR's should be  face-to-face within the company or with the sector whenever possible.

PAR's should be taken at regular intervals, for example every twenty minutes. Also when there is a significant change in the incident, for example, structural collapse, chnge in strategic mode (offensive to defensive) or a report a firefighter missing, a PAR should be immediately implemented. The longer the time between PAR's the better the chance you may not be able to save a lost or missing firefighter. "The longer the time between PAR's the better the chance you may not be able to save a lost or missing firefighter..."

As the incident escalates to the level that Accountability Officers are assigned, command should implement an Accountability Sector to coordinate Accountability Officers. The Accountability Sector Officer will be assigned to Safety Section. The Accountability Sector Officer develops and implements a plan to track and account for all personnel working in the hot zone.

Test your system?
Does your accountability system really work? Why not give it a test. After discussing all the details with your bosses, run a drill and intentionally NOT have firefighter report back or have a company officer report he is short a firefighter. What will happen? Will it go unnoticed or will the system work. There is only one way to find out. Use the system on all incidents test all the components.

There will never be anything more horrific a task than to have to face a surviving firefighter's family and have to say you didn't know he or she was in the building or worse yet, you knew he was inside but did not realize he was missing!  It's better to find out now if your accountability system really works.

About the author: Chief Ronald Richards has over 25 years of fire service experience, both career and volunteer. He rose through the ranks in the Forest City Fire Department, in Forest City, PA and became Fire Chief in 1995. He held that position through 2000 when he retired. He currently serves as the Chief for Training and Safety for Browndale Fire Company in Wayne County, PA. Chief Richards has over 24 years of service with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, having served as a Fire Marshal with the Department of Public Welfare, a Fire and Safety Specialist with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. He currently is the Assistant to the Superintendent within the PA Department of Corrections, responsible for media relations, litigation coordination, accreditation, and the writing of policies and procedures. Chief Richards graduated from the State University of New York with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Service Administration.  Richards is a PA State Fire Instructor and an instructor with Command School, He is the founder of WithThecommand.com.