How mobile technology improves fireground accountability

Technological advances allow wireless devices to handle significant data flows on the fire scene

Firefighter accountability is a cornerstone of fireground safety. With the dynamic nature of the fire scene – and other all-hazards assignments to which fire personnel are called – incident commanders (IC) must know where their personnel are at all times. Key to this mission is technology, particularly mobile technology, so ICs can monitor the situation, whether in the command vehicle or out in the field during a disaster event. This article will outline how mobile technology can aid in fireground accountability and improve firefighter safety.

Firefighter accountability issues

Firefighter accountability has been a key component of NFPA 1500: Standard for Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program since the standard’s initial adoption in 1988. Even so, we still see NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention reports that all too frequently list the lack of a firefighter accountability system as a contributing factor in the line-of-duty death (LODD) of a firefighter.

With the dynamic nature of the fire scene, incident commanders must know where their personnel are at all times.
With the dynamic nature of the fire scene, incident commanders must know where their personnel are at all times. (Photo/Seth Lasko)

What’s missing from the accountability equation?

A firefighter accountability system should give the IC the ability to answer three critical personnel accountability questions, all at their fingertips:

  1. Who’s on the emergency scene?
  2. What is their physical location on the emergency scene?
  3. What’s the location and safety status for everyone on the scene during an unexpected event (e.g., flashover, backdraft, roof collapse)?

So why do fire departments still have such difficulty with implementing a firefighter accountability system?

One answer is that many departments are still using manual accountability systems (e.g., cow tags or unit passports) that are active accountability systems, meaning they require the IC and individual firefighters to take a separate action to make the system work.

The normal flow of activity on the emergency scene (arrive, receive an assignment and go to work) is disrupted – with time wasted – because someone has to do something out of that sequence (e.g., drop off those cow tags or unit passports or be logged into the accountability software).

Advances in accountability technology

The key development in better fireground accountability systems has come in making participation in the accountability system passive, meaning the firefighters and ICs aren’t required to take specific action to make the system work.

A growing number of programs and apps for mobile devices using iOS (Apple), Android and Windows platforms can give the IC the information to answer those three accountability questions. Here are some examples:

  • Features that enables firefighters to receive the call dispatch information and then log onto the call. The app then uses the individual member’s phone location to let the IC know where that member is at any time that they remain active on the call (e.g., still responding or their current location on the incident scene).
  • Incident management software that combines resource management and tracking functions with automatic vehicle location capability that enables the IC to see, communicate and re-route units in real time.
  • RFID tagging and scanning technology that lets you associate a barcode with every person and/or asset for complete visibility and accountability. Accurately track personnel, equipment, victims and evacuees, and know what resources are available when and where.
  • Staffing management software that seamlessly integrates that information into a fire department’s incident management software for real-time personnel assignments for each unit responding to the alarm.
  • Software applications that use the features of a fire department’s land mobile radio system to integrate a fire department’s unit and personnel data, such as ride list assignment and firefighter name, to seamlessly process and display critical personnel accountability information for the IC.
  • Software from various SCBA manufacturers that integrates SCBA user information (e.g., cylinder pressure, service-time remaining) with personnel data to give the IC the information they need to answer those three critical questions.

The right hardware for firefighter accountability

Implementing a passive firefighter accountability system takes more than just acquiring the software or app for your department’s wireless devices. It means having the right wireless devices – smartphones, tablets and notebook computers. The right device will be able to handle immense data flows that consists of voice, text, images and real-time video streaming – the data flow that passive firefighter accountability systems need.

For today and tomorrow, handling data flow is just one purchasing consideration. Another is the durability of the wireless devices and accessories that you purchase. After all, those devices are unlikely to ever see the inside of an office, right?

Manufacturers have developed rugged wireless devices that include not only phones, tablets and notebook computers, but also wireless routers, RFID scanning and tagging equipment, card printers (for on-scene printing of ID tags and other credentialing), and wristband printers – the technology that today’s IC’s need to not only have better firefighter accountability but also better scene security and resource management.

I recommend working with wireless devices that are FirstNet Ready and compatible. FirstNet is the first high-speed wireless broadband network dedicated solely to public safety and is fast becoming the space that fire departments should be operating in daily.

So you need to ask yourself: Is your department using mobile technology that’s ready to provide a passive firefighter accountability system for your personnel?

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