Life-Saving System For Firefighters -- `Passports' Keep Track Of Who's In Building

A low-tech system of tracking firefighters inside burning buildings developed after a fatal Seattle fire will be used by Eastside departments starting this spring, and is starting to gain attention nationwide, firefighters say.

The system, dubbed ``passport accountability'' by the people who developed it, relies on a Velcro-backed name tag for each firefighter, and aims to save lives.

The need for a better way of tracking firefighters at the scene became evident nearly two years ago when Seattle firefighter Matthew Johnson entered the burning Blackstock Lumber Co. warehouse and never came out.

The battalion chiefs directing the assault on the blaze didn't realize Johnson was still inside the building - in part because they misread the number on another firefighter's hat and thought Johnson was out of the flames.

Seattle began using the passport system last fall. Eastside fire departments expect to begin using it in the spring.

Redmond firefighters are learning to use the system, said training officer Jeff Blake. He noted the system will make it easier to track firefighters when a number of different departments are called out to the scene of a big blaze.

Simple errors can turn into tragedy during the heat of a fire, said Stewart Rose, deputy chief in charge of training for the Seattle Fire Department.

In a report released almost a year ago, the National Fire Protection Association blamed Johnson's death on the department's methods of accounting for firefighters at large fires.

Rose said Seattle did a study of how other departments across the nation track their firefighters at the scene of a blaze, and found no others had a system in place. In fact, Rose said, the department believes there is ``no fire department nationwide that has any accountability system that meets the letter of the (National Fire Protection Association) law.''

Working from scratch, the department began trying to devise a way to keep track of everyone.

Before entering a burning building, the firefighter hands his tag to the battalion chief, who sticks the passport onto a numbered board. Firefighters also wear Velcro-covered numbered patches on the fronts of their helmets so battalion chiefs can keep track of them at a distance.

Rose said firefighters turned into researchers last year to try to learn the best way to keep track of people at the scene. They started experiments with magnets that would attach to helmets and boards, but ended up using Velcro because it seemed to adhere best, Rose said.

One of the obstacles to any system: Firefighters consider themselves invincible, Rose said. And, he added, ``They didn't want any system that ties them down.''

Firefighters will also continue to use a simple buddy system and rules to avoid getting lost in a fire: No firefighter goes into a building alone. Firefighters always enter with either a rope or a hose in hand. They also carry radios they can use to call for help.

Rose said the passport system is a first for the area because it is encouraging greater cooperation among the departments.

He said the system is being looked at by other fire departments across the nation.

Meanwhile, the Seattle department is working with the Applied Physics Lab at the University of Washington to develop a locator beacon that could be activated when a firefighter is in trouble.