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?