Accountability of firefighters

I listened to some of the radio traffic while firefighters were attacking the Madison Fire in Monrovia, east of Los Angeles on Friday. Several times I heard Division Supervisors and the Operations Section Chief make routine inquiries about the exact location of various firefighting resources. It did not appear that they were asking for tactical reasons, but simply wanted to update their records about exactly where every resource was on the fire. It occurred to me that this was Accountability, keeping detailed track of everyone so that in case of a sudden change in fire behavior they could move them around, or if there was a disaster, at least they would  know who needed rescuing, who was missing, or where to look if they had to search for people later.

In my experience, detailed tracking of resources to this extent, minute by minute, is not something that most wildland fire agencies have practiced. Municipal fire departments have emphasized this in the last decade or three. And, yes, on any fire, an Incident Action Plan should be developed indicating the general location of resources, either in someone’s head on a small incident, scribbled on a note pad, or as a formal 10 to 30+ page document on a multi-day fire. Of course, a Division Supervisor should always know the location of the three to seven units for which they are responsible. But as Moltke the Elder is supposed to have said, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. So updating the exact locations of resources is important.

I got to thinking what may have precipitated what appears to be a change in this procedure, at least for the wildland resources operating on the Madison fire in southern California on Friday. Maybe it was because most of the firefighters were from the Monrovia and Los Angeles County fire departments, used to working in a municipal environment. I was reminded of the Esperanza Fire, where a five-person U.S. Forest Service engine crew working in an isolated location was overrun by fire and killed.

Following the huge explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas on Wednesday, in which 12 firefighters and EMS personnel were killed, for the first several days the spokespersons for the incident were saying they did not know exactly how many emergency services personnel were killed or missing. Maybe they just did not choose to release the information, or, perhaps they did not know how many were actively engaged in the suppression of the fire when the facility exploded.

What do you think about enhanced, detailed accountability on wildland fires? Is what I heard on the Madison fire a result of firefighters operating in an urban environment, or has there been an increased emphasis recently among wildland fire agencies?

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

5 thoughts on “Accountability of firefighters”

  1. I come from a structure background so accountability was drummed into me early on. The state lands guys that trains us comes from a structure background as well and he teaches accountability pretty hard as well. In some of the classes I have been taking from him and others from the BLM I am starting to hear them mention PAR, which I think means Personnel Accountability Report, which is a structure idea but seems to be making inroads into wildland. I think it has a lot to do with structure backgrounds and urban fire leaders finding their way into the wildland side of things. PAR works for urban guys and I think it works for wildland guys too.

  2. I think in a small town in a rural area with a 33 person volunteer department, that when a large incident first evolves, everyone available tends to rush to the scene and attempt to mitigate the problem. A larger, less isolated paid agency, would tend to set up a command system per ICS and be more methodical, assess the situation, develop a strategy, and marshall and assign forces before entering the scene. West has pagers and sirens to call out firefighters. They probably are trained and understand ICS, but were overwhelmed by the scope of the incident to think about accountability. Members of large organized agencies cannot imagine the fear and apprehension for the community (not themselves) that these firefighters probably felt when they rushed in. Perhaps the dispatch center was the only entity that knew what units, but not the names of each person, had arrived and what their intentions were.
    Perhaps the person doing accountability perished. Only after action reports will show what happened.

  3. Our small local district is considering putting GPS trackers on all of their equipment.

    1. Are you talking about the GPS Spot thing? I think I read where the Forest Service was thinking about that too. Carl, I think you are probably right. In a small town sometimes people self dispatch as well with the IC having no knowledge if they don’t check in. On our structure engines we have accountability boards the Officer in charge keeps updated, which would have been destroyed in the blast. I have seen some officers try to keep accountability lists in their head as well. Wouldn’t work in a disaster like what happened in West.

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