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Low-tech System Helps Fayetteville Fire Department Track Personnel During Blazes

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FAYETTEVILLE – City firefighters were battling a blaze in apartments off Reilly Road in October when the call came over the radio.

“Mayday,” the code word for help, was coming from a firefighter, who was trying to knock down the fire in one of the units when the ceiling began to give way.

It was a situation that could have ended tragically.

But it didn’t, because at least one person at the scene knew exactly where the firefighter was.

That person was the firefighter designated as the accountability officer. All he had to do was look at a clipboard, and he knew immediately where to find his colleague in trouble.

In an age of high-tech gadgets used to map routes and track people, Fayetteville’s firefighters have learned that old-fashioned methods often work much better.

All they need in this case are an eraser board, a marker, key rings and a set of three identification tags for each firefighter.

“It’s simpler, it doesn’t break, it doesn’t need IT (Information Technology) support and it’s cheap,” said Tommy McMillan, a Fayetteville Fire Department battalion commander.

Keeping up with the location of firefighters is necessary, Assistant Chief Mike Hill said.

In fact, he said, it’s mandated by state and federal workplace safety standards.

“We’re regulated by the National Fire Protection Association and OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration),” Hill said. “We have to have accountability.”

Rather than burden the commander in charge at a scene, one firefighter is given the assignment of keeping up with everyone.

It’s not an easy task, said firefighter Steven Reep, who had that duty recently when the Miami Subs Grill restaurant caught fire.

Clad in his turnout gear, he held an eraser board with three holes on each side. Each hole corresponded with a block Reep drew on the board, which mapped the location of firefighters from each truck or engine.

Hanging from a hole at one corner of the board was what appeared to be a key ring. It was, in fact, Reep’s blueprint to locate each firefighter.

Each firefighter has three identification tags, McMillan, the battalion commander, explained.

When a firefighter comes to work each morning, one tag is given to the company officer, one is attached to the firefighter’s assigned truck and the other is worn around the firefighter’s neck.

When firefighters respond to a call, the accountability officer receives the tags of the riders on each truck.

The tags are put on a ring that is clipped to the eraser board, indicating where the firefighters are assigned.

“When they’re (firefighters) assigned a task on the scene, I make a notation right here and clip them here,” Reep said, pointing to the board with circular holes along the edges.

If firefighters on Engine 6 are assigned the task of attacking the blaze, the accountability officer marks it on the board, as Reep did at the restaurant fire.

“So I clip it (a tag) on this little ring right here,” he said, pointing to the board, “write down that they’re on fire attack so they’re accounted for.”

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

The first few minutes are hectic while trying to keep up with assignments, Reep said.

Things will settle down for about 10 minutes, he said.

“Then, they (firefighters) come out and change bottles, you have new guys going in, you’ve got to constantly keep up with it,” Reep said.

It’s proven to be nearly foolproof, said Hill, an 18-year department member.

The department has tried using Velcro, but keeping tags attached was a problem.

There were issues, too, with an electronic or computerized method, Hill said.

“It was very new technology and had inherent problems,” Hill said. “It wasn’t reliable and wasn’t dependable, so we reverted back to a more durable system.”

Simpler isn’t only better, but also more cost-efficient, McMillan said. The tags are about $1 each while the boards may run $5 to $6, he said.

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