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Head count: Is your accountability program up to PAR?

Regardless of the size of your department, there is an implicit requirement to develop, maintain and continually improve on a comprehensive firefighter accountability program capable of tracking members at all types of incidents.

February 26, 2008 
By Peter Hunt

The Ottawa Fire
Department uses an accountability board to track its firefighters on
scene. The board is set up near incident command and is divided into
quadrants that hold firefighter “passports.”

Regardless of the size of your department, there is an implicit requirement to develop, maintain and continually improve on a comprehensive firefighter accountability program capable of tracking members at all types of incidents.

Most modern and progressive fire departments have implemented more safety and scene-management policies than ever before. Yet, surprisingly, North American firefighter injury and death statistics have not changed for generations.

Sadly, a common factor in many post-incident analyses of tragic events occurring in the fire service is a breakdown in critical functions such as incident command, communications, rapid intervention and accountability.

A good accountability program should complement and enhance a department’s incident command system.


Knowing the location and assignment of all firefighters operating at an emergency scene is a difficult task at the best of times. This responsibility can become nearly impossible without the proper policies, equipment and discipline required to carry it out.

The very nature of fire fighting and firefighters is a constant threat to any accountability program. The overwhelming desire to rapidly carry out rescue operations, stretch the initial attack hose line or generally “get busy” often undermines the requirement to account for members and crews.

A comprehensive SOP alone will not guarantee proper implementation or compliance. Thorough training, the best possible equipment and consistent enforcement of policies will ensure that those assigned the role of accountability can accurately locate a missing or injured member or crew when the unthinkable happens.

Senior department officials must become thoroughly familiar with their accountability policy and attend emergency scenes regularly to ensure compliance.

Adequate personnel must be assigned the role of accountability early to prevent playing catch-up during the critical early phase of an incident. Members must take responsibility for their own safety through a thorough knowledge of policies and proper implementation at every incident scene.

A single incident commander can manage command and accountability responsibilities at a small- to medium-sized incident but is dependent on the command officer’s experience.

Considering accepted fire-service standards, dedicated accountability personnel must be assigned once responding crews exceed command’s manageable span of control.

This critical limit must be determined in advance and written into departmental policies.

Most accountability systems consist of overall scene accountability designed to track all members/crews at the incident, and hot-zone entry control to more specifically track those operating in areas of greater risk.

Entry control provides redundancy in the system and allows for more comprehensive tracking of those on the nozzle, conducting the primary search, carrying out ventilation or otherwise engaged in mitigating the emergency.

Although it’s important to account for everyone at the incident, it may be critical to know specifically who is operating in the hot zone should the need arise to quickly locate members.

At a routine incident, a personnel accountability report (PAR) should be conducted to assure command that all members are accounted for and are operating in their intended locations.

During a PAR, company officers report their location, assignment and number of members under their watch. For example, “Ladder 17 has PAR 3 and is venting the roof.”

If a member or crew is suspected or known to be lost, a PAR check takes on an entirely different meaning and the department’s accountability system will be tested like never before.

There are many possible scenarios that could require command to order accountability to conduct an emergency PAR:  a sudden extension of fire; a structural collapse; a change from offensive to defensive operations; a PASS alarm is known to be sounding; an individual or crew has not been heard from.

When conducting an emergency PAR, accountability must rapidly assess their information and systematically contact crews last known to be operating in the area of greatest risk.

In most cases, those crews would include fire attack, search, ventilation, and others.

However, in an event such as an exterior wall collapsing into the street, those at greatest risk might also include crews at rehab, in staging or even command officers.

An emergency PAR must be conducted clearly, rapidly and concisely and preferably by a company officer with a strong and confident radio presence.

To avoid any additional confusion during a potentially confusing time, company officers must never use the word PAR unless their entire crew can be accounted for.

If the officer in charge of the fire-attack sector reports that “I do not have PAR,” accountability may falsely record that all members assigned to fire attack are accounted for as they have focused on the word “PAR.”

A more appropriate response by the fire attack sector officer would be “Fire Attack has one member not accounted for, last seen on the fire floor.”

Command must assign his rapid intervention team to the last known location of members or crews not accounted for, often while account-ability completes their PAR to eliminate any delay in rescue operations.

If members believed to be lost are found with other crews or sectors, that officer should report, “Ventilation sector has PAR three on the fire floor, plus one member from fire attack.”

Remember, a good accountability program will enhance and complement an incident command system.

If properly implemented and strictly enforced, that program may one day save a life.

Peter Hunt, a 28-year veteran of the Fire Service, is a captain with the Ottawa Fire Services Suppression Division.

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