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Fire IQ: July 2011

Ten years ago, the Ontario government legislated the amalgamation of all Ottawa-area cities and municipalities, creating one of Canada’s largest fire departments covering 2,800 square kilometres, with 43 fire stations (27 urban and 16 rural), 1,000 full-time firefighters and administrative staff, and 400 part-time firefighters and staff. We set about to harmonize policies, strategies and tactics. I was asked to head a committee responsible for developing an accountability system that would address the needs of this new, large, composite fire service.

July 7, 2011
By Peter Hunt

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Ten years ago, the Ontario government legislated the amalgamation of all Ottawa-area cities and municipalities, creating one of Canada’s largest fire departments covering 2,800 square kilometres, with 43 fire stations (27 urban and 16 rural), 1,000 full-time firefighters and administrative staff, and 400 part-time firefighters and staff. We set about to harmonize policies, strategies and tactics. I was asked to head a committee responsible for developing an accountability system that would address the needs of this new, large, composite fire service.

The committee quickly agreed that we would initially develop a hybrid system that fundamentally incorporated the ones used in our former departments, but we would adopt a more advanced electronic accountability system as soon as time, money and technology permitted.

It was our belief that if bar codes and radio frequency (RFID) chips could be used to track packages anywhere in the world, and differentiate between good guys and bad guys in theatres of war, then it made sense to apply the same technology to track our firefighters at an operation with an emphasis on those at the greatest risk operating in the hot zone.

In the ensuing years, our hybrid system evolved to address the needs of our firefighters, and as of this writing, we are still developing easier ways to manage tags and photo cards in the hope that we will be able to find out the exact location and assignment of any members or crews who get into trouble.

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Throughout this process, our chiefs have been generous with time and money, and we have assigned an entire pump crew (an officer and three firefighters) to manage accountability at most operations. Sadly, the much-anticipated magic bullet we had hoped for has not yet been developed by industry.

To be honest, I didn’t take accountability very seriously before I was handed this assignment, and older readers will remember that accountability didn’t exist in any form until well into the 1990s. My attitude changed dramatically when I fully realized the legal, moral and ethical responsibilities assumed by departments to comply with the vague legislation that requires them to have an accountability system and to create a comprehensive process that would actually work and stand up to the scrutiny of an accident or line-of-duty-death investigation.

Firefighters continue to be injured and killed at unacceptable rates, and we all know that on the fast-paced, unpredictable and inherently risky fire ground, a breakdown in one or all of three key areas – command, accountability and communications – is often to blame.

While every department I know has a good handle on the incident command process, many jurisdictions continue to struggle with the development and subsequent enforcement of a comprehensive accountability system. The fundamental first step to ensure that we have our firefighters’ backs is compliance at all levels of the organization. Chiefs enforce, firefighters comply, and nobody gets to freelance – as it takes only a single member operating outside the incident scene management (ISM) process to undermine everyone else’s efforts to manage the operation and track the location and assignment of companies.

In our dangerous work environments, technology must complement the efforts of command, accountability and the dispatcher (who must have a formal role and training in the ISM process). RFID chips showing the real-time location of firefighters in three dimensions, SCBA telemetry monitoring breathing air levels and mayday buttons that send positive identification must become standard equipment for all departments.

Many jurisdictions simply can’t afford the kind of system I am advocating. However, there is good reason to be optimistic. Most SCBA manufacturers now offer the kind of telemetry I refer to, and it’s getting more reliable and affordable all the time. In addition, the Fire Department of New York has recently implemented a trial RFID-based personnel tracking program for some of its 11,000 members. It only stands to reason that industry will recognize the market and the profit that exists in the fire service for this kind of technology.

In the meantime, while we call on manufacturers to develop effective, affordable electronic accountability systems for our members, we must work tirelessly toward a culture of safety that ensures strict compliance with accepted safe practices.

In addition, I encourage chiefs to take a serious look at their own departments’ accountability systems. Are you merely complying with your obligation to have a system, or will it stand up under the toughest scrutiny? Does your accountability system complement your command system with a continuous exchange of information at an operation? Have you formalized your dispatchers’ roles in the process by ensuring that they can conduct a personnel accountability report if a crisis prevents on-scene members from doing so?

As with so many other safety and survival issues in the fire service, we can never rest until we have achieved the best equipment, systems, policies and practices for our members.
While there is nothing exciting about the accountability process, we must approach it as though lives are at stake . . . because they are.


Peter Hunt, a 30-year veteran of the fire service is a captain in the Ottawa Fire Department’s suppression division. He can be reached at  peter.hunt@rogers.com


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