When it comes to accountability systems, there's truly something for everyone.
There are accountability systems for every fire department's budget, but that doesn't mean that every department has one — far from it.
Two factors, money and the evolution of firefighting provide the easy answer why too many departments still lack even the most rudimentary form of personnel accountability, said Curt Varone, NFPA's former director of public fire protection.
"We [firefighters] developed a system … where everybody on the scene pretty much freelanced," he said. While wider availability of portable radios changed that to some degree, "there are a lot of people who don't get it. They don't get incident command; they don't get accountability. It's like some people don't get the need to wear seatbelts," Varone said.
The mechanics of firefighting also contribute to the problem. A fire scene, Varone said, "is like a street fight. You have battles going on here, battles going on there, and somebody has to keep track of where everybody is. It's extremely challenging."
But extremely necessary. Currently, accountability systems range in complexity from simple Velcro tags to those with advanced computer electronics with RF telemetry. On the horizon, perhaps as soon as later this year, more advanced systems will provide three-dimensional location data.
Here's a look at some of the accountability and PASS (personal alert safety system) equipment that is available to firefighters.
There always have been concerns about the durability and dependability of advanced electronics systems in a firefighting environment, but NFPA 1981 for firefighting SCBA and 1982 for PASS devices have silenced them, say technology supporters.
The latest standards require baking the product in an oven at 350° for 15 minutes, and then dropping it in five feet of water six times — the last with the battery compartment open. Then the device is run through a multi-hour tumble test. That's more than enough to ensure reliability in even the toughest environments, say the vendors who build and test these products.
Unfortunately, the more-advanced electronics systems generally are out of reach of many financially challenged departments — particularly volunteer departments — that would need to hold numerous spaghetti dinners and receive a pile of government-subsidy money to buy something like the PC-based systemoffers.
"This system is expensive," acknowledged Tony Topf, accountability product line manager for Scott. "Fortunately, we still have Assistance to Firefighters Grants funding available that supports accountability systems. Departments can apply for an AFG, with [high-end] equipment as part of the grant."
Scott's electronic management system uses a self-healing wireless mesh network to make every SCBA a wireless repeater. The system monitors personnel, including their PASS status and air pressure, and enables incident commander-directed evacuation by transmitting radio signals over 2.4 GHz unlicensed bandwidth. The system is capable of transmitting a 3,000-foot, line-of-sight signal and its self-healing mesh architecture allows 10 hops between moving personnel, so the signal range conceivably could reach 30,000 feet, Topf said.
"This network works the way firefighters work. As a firefighter stands at the front door pushing hose into the building to the team inside, there might be another team supporting them. You build a little trail of firefighters going into the building and it becomes a wireless mesh network," he said.
Departments need laptop computers to download the Scott software so "it's not a piece of equipment for everybody," Topf added. "[Also,] some departments have better training habits than others, and this is a technical product that requires people to be trained."
Meanwhile,integrates a PASS device into its SCBA and includes software for an incident command base station.
"We account for everyone wearing an SCBA so the incident commander can monitor firefighters' air pressure, time remaining calculated on rate of breathing, their low-pressure alarm and their PASS alarm," said Henry Fonzi, product line manager at MSA.
The incident commander also can evacuate individuals, teams or the entire fire scene via two-way, audio-visual notification with the firefighters.
"There is no tagging in the process other than to individualize and put the firefighter's name on the SCBA when they come on shift, so that the information is individualized for them if they so choose," Fonzi said.
MSA's radio-based electronics system is proprietary, so it won't interoperate with other electronics systems. It operates in the 900 MHz band using frequency-hopping, spread-spectrum radios that offer a one-mile, line-of-sight range. However, the system currently does not include location technology because that "has not been done effectively at this time," Fonzi said, "But we are aggressively working on a program."
While every electronic system is proprietary to some degree, there is some crossover between vendors. For instance, Grace Industries traditionally has worked to help others interoperate with its systems by intersecting its telemetry-based PASS offerings with other vendors' barcode-based scanning systems, said Bob Campman, vice president of research and development.
Most recently Grace agreed to work with Salamander Technologies' barcode readers by making the information from its monitoring software available to Salamander equipment, "so that in their software and our software you can tell which firefighters are present and who has a PASS device on," Campman said. "We're pitching that information back and forth so Salamander can keep track of anybody on scene that has their tag system."
But keeping track does not include location — yet.
"We're always looking at location-based systems," Campman said. "We have researched this thoroughly and have not been satisfied with a technology that is reliable and thorough enough to be used for mass deployment. There are still a lot of caveats to actually locating and tracking a firefighter in real-time based on physical location."
Grace is developing a locator device to be deployed in a building "but it hasn't been released yet for sale," he said. "It is something we hope will be market-ready later this year."
It won't be the type of GPS-based location system that people use in their cars or with their mobile phones, he said. That kind of satellite-based system is "not very practical for firefighting because it's too weak to penetrate inside buildings."
Instead, the Grace system will use radio technology schemes to locate a firefighter's signal, a process that undoubtedly will be expensive — at least from the perspective of smaller departments.
"One of the big things that drives up the cost of these products, particularly automated accountability and PASS such as ours, is the certification and approvals that are necessary for firefighters to bring these into the hot zone," he said.
According to Campman, Grace hopes to combat that problem with a smaller radio accountability tag that comes with a lower price and which will tie into its telemetry PASS device.
It's pretty much a given that, without some expertise in extracting dollars from government subsidies and grants, smaller departments — especially those that are volunteer in nature — are out of luck when it comes to affording advanced electronic accountability systems — regardless of whether they're connected to PASS equipment. There are, however, mid-level, semi-automated systems that do a very nice job of keeping track of personnel.
Salamander Technologies unveiled three upgrades to its product line last year, and has two more two scheduled for this year.
Because customers demand some degree of convergence, each upgrade moves Salamander's technology in that direction, said Joseph Robinson, vice president of marketing and sales. Customers also demand equipment that works across needs.
"They're not doing structure fire 100% of the time; they're doing traffic accident or rescue and that doesn't require air tanks," he said. "If the accountability system is tied to the air-tank management system or hot-zone management system, they don't have an accountability model across their entire organization."
Robinson added that Salamander's policy is simple: "Everybody on scene is accounted for, including responders, patients, evacuees and equipment."
At the top of its product ladder, Salamander uses an electronic storage system to record user information and place it inside a radio-frequency identification tag (RFID) that wirelessly downloads the data to incident command when the firefighter arrives on scene.
"You have all the raw data that normally people write on their arm or Post-It note or clipboard electronically captured," Robinson said. "Then that data can be shared at the scene electronically on computers or external to the scene on the Internet. It's a tag-to-Web accountability."
Meanwhile, IMS Alliance and its parent company, Legend ID, are working the problem from both ends, as the former manufactures manual command boards while the latter markets electronic accountability systems. Additionally, the company works with other vendors' systems.
"Salamander has worked with us to put their barcode on our manual system so that as the incident grows they can pull out their electronic system, fire it up, take their barcode readers, scan the entire board and they have it [the data] all pushed into their electronic system," said Doug Vetter, IMS Alliance's president. "It builds a smooth path from a manual system to an electronic system."
At its base, the IMS Alliance system depends on a collection of firefighter ID information from dog tags to Velcro tags that peel off and are stuck to the command board at a fire scene.
"Should it be electronic? Absolutely," Vetter said. "You can do it very simply by having an access control card that you pass by a reader that says you're checked in. That would be a pretty simple way to move from manual to electronic."
It isn't happening more widely, he said, because "there are some maintenance costs, some initial installation costs and volunteer fire departments don't have the budgets for it. They have plenty of budget for [two-way radios], but they don't have any budget for accountability."
Even the most financially challenged fire department can afford some form of accountability system, even if it is a simple as a military-style dog-tag system. MY-LOR is a small, family-run company that markets such a product — but be careful of what you call them when you're around Randy Digby, the company's CEO.
"Some people call them dog tags. We don't call them dog tags because they hang on firefighters, not dogs," Digby said.
MY-LOR also sells Velcro-based systems but prefers not to go in that direction because "there are a lot of problems with those," Digby said. "It's easy to peel off and lose the tags, so we concentrate on our system, which is tags that have complementary command boards."
While Digby is a businessman selling products, he's also a firefighter who believes that it's crucial to account for every person at a fire scene — even if it means writing it on your arm.
"We use tags with clips; some people use Velcro; some people just have tags that they hand back and forth with no means of attachment," he said.
MY-LOR sells all kinds of tags. It encourages customers to put names on them, but many departments continue to use a numbering system that can be repurposed as firefighters come and go, Digby said.
"Basically we do a plastic tag, primarily for costs, and we do an aluminum tag that's still not expensive but is much more durable," he said.
The company recently introduced an all-aluminum command board as well.
"A good firefighter can unravel a bowling ball with a feather duster so you have to make stuff tough," he said.
Salamander also has a dog-tag-style system. The firefighter's personal medical record is found inside the tag and the agency information outside the tag.
In a two-tag system, a firefighter arrives on scene and hands one tag to the staging officer and keeps the other. The site commander has accountability of "who's on scene and what equipment they're on. … If he hears that a firefighter fell down, he rips open the tag and it shows his blood type, his next of kin numbers and all that information," Robinson said.
Ben Lapp is the executive vice president and co-owner of Tactron. He recognizes that there is a movement toward electronic systems but still figures you can't beat his company's manual Velcro-based accountability system for reliability.
"As good as electronics can be, they have their faults," he said. "Real-time alerting of a firefighter down or a firefighter in distress, they're amazing for that. But batteries go dead; computers crash; wireless networks go down and you're left with the traditional manual systems that have worked for 20-some years."
It's not that Lapp doesn't like modern technology. He, like many others, works with Salamander's automated system, but in the end he prefers to at least have the basics on place.
"We are truly talking about accounting for the people that are in harm's way. Do I see all these systems coming together? Yes. Do I see a need for every level? Absolutely. Will one take over the other? I sure hope not. Whether it's a Velcro tag, a photo ID card, or an RFID chip, one way or another we need to have a redundant system to assure that those people are accounted for at every stage."
Jim Barthold is a freelance writer.
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