Virginia departments find regional consensus on an accountability system that is used during multijurisdictional incidents.
If you think there isn’t anything worse than being the incident commander at a major fire, then try being the accountability officer for that event. Both the IC and AO constantly ask themselves:
- Where is everyone?
- What are they doing?
- Are they OK?
- What if they aren’t?
We have at our disposal various tools that help us keep track of all personnel, as well as policies and procedures that guide us on what to do when things go bad. We call this our accountability system. Concerning the tools, there are lots of choices, from brand name and store-bought to homegrown and custom designed, and every fire-service organization has found something that is working for them.
But what happens when neighboring agencies respond to that major fire and some show up with “dog tags,” others with “passports,” and still others with barcode scanners — and you are the IC who has to make all of those parts work seamlessly? How will you handle a missing crew or mayday call given those multiple systems and dissimilar procedures — especially when every firefighter at the scene instinctively will want to spring into action to save their sisters and brothers? The life-and-death reality of such a scenario is that you have to get it right on the first try.
This article describes how four departments in and around Richmond, Va., attempted to answer those tough questions by adopting a regional policy that allows reasonable accommodation for existing hardware already in use by various departments, but provides one clear common operating framework when those regional partner agencies respond to mutual-aid incidents.
Who We Are
Richmond is the state capital and is independent of any county. The James River runs through the city and is the natural boundary for many of Virginia’s counties. Henrico County wraps around the city north of the river, while Chesterfield County brackets it on the south, effectively land-locking the city’s 62.5 square miles. Together these localities form the heart of the metropolitan area, which is surrounded by additional counties ranging from suburban to rural. Richmond is home to numerous Fortune 100 and 500 companies, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court and the 5th District Federal Reserve Bank. The city has more than 200,000 residents, with a commuter work-week and visitor population approaching 500,000. Meanwhile, Henrico and Chesterfield counties encompass 244 and 466 square miles respectively, and each is home to about 300,000 residents. Just beyond Henrico lies Hanover County, which encompasses 471 square miles and has a population of about 100,000.
These four core localities have full-time paid or combination fire departments that comprise the bulk of available emergency response resources in the Central Virginia region and represent a work force of more than 1,500 uniformed firefighters, of which roughly 350 are on duty on any given day. Clearly, no one department is staffed adequately to handle the most demanding incidents that can happen, whether it be a working fire in an unsprinklered high rise in downtown Richmond, a shopping mall or apartment complex fire in the suburbs, or massive or multiple wind-driven wildfires in the rural reaches of the region’s outer boundaries. All are very real possibilities, and some already have happened — as recently as the past few months.
Many years ago, conversations among the fire chiefs of Richmond and the growing suburban departments led to the formation of the Richmond Metro Fire Chiefs Association. Today membership includes not only the four big departments, but also departments serving five surrounding counties and the cities of Petersburg, Hopewell and Colonial Heights to the south, as well as Fort Lee and Defense Logistics Agency Supply Center.
Mutual aid has been provided across borders for decades, and Richmond and Chesterfield have enjoyed automatic aid along the common border for years, but policies and procedures only recently have been aligned with the very real potential that one day, all of these neighboring departments will find themselves at an incident and functioning as one force.
Road to Regional Accountability
For as long as anyone can remember, firefighters have engaged in coffee-table talk regarding what their fire chiefs ought to be doing. Such chatter definitely touched upon the notion of regional training. Five years ago, the fire chiefs at the region’s four largest departments decided to act on that notion. Over lunch one day, it was proposed, as a place to start, that these departments develop a common fireground procedure for high-rise incidents.
At the time, Henrico was the only locality other than Richmond that has a high rise in its environs — presently one 1950s-era apartment building — everyone at the table recognized that recent explosive growth in the surrounding counties would be deterred only briefly by the economic downturn, and that it was only a matter of time before true-definition high rises sprouted among the many mid-rise, mixed-use developments already occupied. No one needed a formal threat and risk assessment to see the need for a common high-rise procedure across the region.
After this procedure was drafted and approved for adoption among the four large departments, shared command-level training and functional exercises were completed, followed by joint “boots-on-the-ground” full-scale training for more than 1,200 personnel from across the region. Last year, a similar process was completed for “big-box” incidents — there are countless big-box stores, massive distribution warehouses and manufacturing plants throughout the region — and more than 1,600 firefighters trained together from more than a dozen regional departments. The multi-phased approach included policy revision, training development, a “train-the-trainer” program and a full-day seminar led by renowned command-training expert Don Abbott. This was followed by weeks of scheduled one-day training evolutions of joint, multiagency personnel.
While it might seem odd, mayday training was only a minor portion of the big-box training and accountability was only addressed using what each department brought with them. Nevertheless, huge gaps in capability and compatibility were revealed — not surprisingly — as the phases and evolutions progressed. Learning what did not work was a critically important and profoundly valuable experience that presented the next opportunity for collaboration: the drafting of the Metro Richmond Accountability Procedure.
Using the same course developers and the same principal players, the individual department SOPs were evaluated for similarities and differences, as well as preferences, likes and dislikes. Common ground and a common purpose spawned compromise and consensus. After review and revision through several drafts, we now have one procedure that all have endorsed and fire chiefs have approved for publication and distribution.
The next phase already is underway, as each department is implementing this policy change internally. Concurrently, Richmond is transitioning from its “dog tag” hardware to what most of the other departments are already using, a hook-and-loop nameplate/unit riding list platform sometimes referred to as a “passport” system. This action was not a requirement of adopting the shared policy, but rather an affirmative step toward regional alignment since most other localities successfully were using that system already. While the policy provides for flexibility among the participating departments, it only makes sense to move toward one unified platform, especially if a given department is less than satisfied with its current hardware.
Like interoperable communications, personnel accountability is one of the most critical elements of any successful fireground or emergency incident response. Tremendous amounts of money and planning have been invested on local, state, and national levels to improve our communications systems so that we may talk with multiple agencies and other jurisdictions, near and far. Can the same be said about accountability? Regardless of the color of your fire truck or the patch on your shoulder, do you know whether the accountability system that your department has adopted will work when it has to, and will it work effectively in conjunction with your neighboring departments when you cross boundaries?
The various fire departments in Richmond’s metropolitan area all used various systems, but until they participated in regional training, they had no way of knowing whether they could maintain adequate accountability on the fireground. That training exposed the weaknesses that existed — ones that would have had an immediate impact on the ability to locate or identify personnel in need of immediate assistance during any response when that mayday call came.
When the Metro Richmond Training Chiefs Section convened to look at each individual department’s system, the members immediately acknowledged that no system was better than any other. They then discussed options for integrating the various current systems into one in which all components could be used to meet the critical goal of accounting for all firefighters on scene, continuously and seamlessly. The many pertinent questions that were tackled included:
- Who is assigned to manage the accountability duties at an incident?
- What are the different levels of accountability?
- How should personnel accountability reports be constructed?
- Who has responsibility for identifying missing or trapped firefighters in a mayday situation?
- How should the demobilization of resources through accountability be managed?
The end result was a policy that not only provides a regional accountability framework, but also provides each jurisdiction with a system that still addresses its needs and is user friendly under most — if not all — circumstances. Most important, it immediately accounts for all personnel and manages on-scene resources, especially when a mayday is sounded.
In addition, the system is scalable, meaning that high-tech barcode-scanning systems—such as the one developed by Salamander Technologies—can be incorporated in the future, so that the system can grow and adapt in response to the complex, large-scale, ongoing incidents that have become all too common of late. In the future, we might even see the development of a digital database of resources and an automated process of identifying, credentialing, and tracking resources and responders.
In summary, in contemplating how to develop a regional accountability system that works, you need to ask the following vital questions:
- Does my department have an accountability procedure?
- Have our members trained on its components?
- Are incident commanders utilizing the system properly?
- Will it work with our neighbors?
- Can we prove that it works reliably, each and every time, without fail?
One thing is for sure: someone’s life is riding on it, and that someone could be you, your crew, your department. Are you willing to bet your life on “pretty sure” or “I think so?” We decided that we were not as confident in our accountability system as we once thought, and we no longer were willing to continue living in the shadowy land of “maybe” and “I hope so.”
This article is intended to provoke thought and discussion that can lead you and your coworkers toward asking and answering some really difficult questions. In doing so, it is likely that you will discover that you have a lot of work to do to achieve “bomb-proof” accountability.
Robert Creecy is the chief of the Richmond (Va.) Department of Fire and Emergency Services. He has been with the department for nearly 30 years.