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The Mutual Aid Mooch Revisited: Lawrence, Massachusetts

As I was reading a recent Firehouse.com piece on the layoffs in Lawrence, MA, my mind began to travel back in time. The mayor and politicians in this old mill community were looking to their neighbors to subsidize the cost of their fire protection needs. Had I not written about this a long time ago? In checking my records I discovered that I covered this topic more than a decade ago. More than 10 years ago I wrote a scathing commentary right here on the electronic pages of Firehouse.com.

That's right gang, I was railing against those thoughtless people who felt that they could balance their budgets on the back of their neighbors. Here we are again, looking at penurious political people who do not want to pay the freight to provide proper fire protection for their community.

Many of you are well aware that I am a strong advocate of mutual aid, automatic aid, and regional dispatching. I would even go so far as to state that I am in favor of regional approaches to the delivery of fire protection services. It has long been my belief that it as an effective way to create a regional firefighting force capable of coming together in a rapid manner for the common good. Over the years I have taken a bit of flak now and then for championing this approach to fire service delivery and deployment, but that's OK. Far too many people think that it is still the 1950's and that they are fully capable of handling everything in their community.

Sorry gang. It just isn't that way any more. However, what really galls me is a group of people to whom I am once again going to grant a scathing nickname. In the year 2000 I chose to label these people as members of a growing group of fumbling fire service phonies. These are the cheapskates that I intend to once again brand as Mutual Aid Mooches.

Think about the concept of what a moocher is. This is the person who sits between two friends in a restaurant and picks a bit of meat off of your plate, and then turns to you other buddy and spears a couple of lima beans. But don't reach for his plate, or he will spear your hand. I have been bruised by people such as this on more than one occasion.

Let me suggest that the same still holds true for those fire chiefs who want mutual aid to run into their town every time they call, but who refuse to send out equipment to standby in another community. They want it all without having to put up a fair share in return. Talk about selfish, these are the folks who have streets named after themselves. You have seen the signs I am sure. You know them, the streets with the arrows that say 'one way'.

Back in 2000 I was taken to task for confusing true mutual aid with regional dispatch. This individual went on at length about how mutual aid was only for when there were real fires and real need. He said that he was tired of having people in other departments mooch off of him. I thanked him for his reply, and filed his comments in the appropriate mailbox.

Back then it was my intention to let this matter lie, because I simply did not agree with most of what this person had to say. But I must say to you that their rantings did cause me to think. Let me once again state my views for all of you to see and hear. Let me assure you that I am a firm believer in automatic aid and regional dispatching for one very simple reason. Fire will not wait for us to respond, decide we need mutual aid, call for help and then fight a holding action until help comes. Fire responds according to the set rules of the standard time and temperature curve. If there is more fire than water being put on the fire, you will probably lose the battle. The help will usually arrive too late to be of any real assistance.

That is my position. Having said that let me once again state that I really do not like fire service cheapskates. These are the people who will use every last ounce of your resources, while many of their people sit comfortably at home. By using your resources, they do not have to recall their own forces and thus dip ino their overtime till.

Let me remind you that I once took a fire department in New Jersey to task for attempting to get by with the continual help of a mutual aid aerial ladder company from a neighboring community. Theirs broke down, and they claimed that they did not have enough money to buy a new one. This was one of those times when my love of automatic mutual aid and regional dispatch ran head on into my disdain for moochy people. And this department was a classic example of what I now prefer to call mutual aid mooches.

I can think of another case involving an all-volunteer fire department. They are active participants in a regional mutual aid and dispatch consortium. They are most comfortable with using the four career people who respond with a pumper on automatic aid from a neighboring community to handle their initial attack firefighting requirements until they can muster an appropriately staffed volunteer attack team.

However, when they were asked if they ever intended to hire career staff for their firefighting operation, they replied that this was not necessary, since they have the people coming in from the next district. What a load of horse manure. Here is where I start to get upset. This is a classic example of someone being a mutual aid mooch.

In those situations where I am asked to be an advocate for a concept, let me once again reply that it is critical for me to be specific about what I consider to be the acceptable parameters to be for the delivery of these services. I believe that the parties to a mutual aid agreement have to operate according to a share and share alike operational approach. If my department is going to send you a fully staffed pumper when you need one, then you should be prepared to send an aerial ladder my way when I need it.

It is tough to be out ahead of the learning curve. Many of you will recall that I was an early proponent of the shared services and department consolidation movement. I wrote on this back in the early to mid-1990's. I was roundly condemned for my efforts to bring groups together. I was really smacked for my efforts to create a county fire department in a particular urban area of New Jersey. Now the various communities are clamoring for something that I recommended nearly 20 years ago.

What I am not saying is also very important. I am not saying that everyone has to have all of the toys. A true area-wide operation involves the assembly of an alarm assignment using the resources from the region. It is essential for those who are involved in planning for regional operation to sit down around a large meeting room table and decide what they intend to do, who is to perform what functions, and how the operation is to work.

All of the players must then reduce this agreement to writing. This is critical, because it is amazing to see how often the words we write are not the words we think or say. Once the written document has been approved, it should be reproduced and given to all of the parties to the agreement.

Then comes the critical phase for this type of operation: It must be implemented and used on a continuing basis. There should be provisions for regular meetings of all signatories to the agreement. And drills among the participants should occur on a periodic basis. Fire departments work much better together when they are familiar with the manner in which their neighbors work.

I am not saying that this is an easy procedure. Those kind people who have shared their regional success stories with me have each indicated that there was an initial period of many meetings and discussions. There were some serious disputes. But the people at the meeting tables were able to put aside their individual interests in favor of a better level of service to a given region.

Once their plans were created, they were reduced to writing so that everyone could digest the words. There was a period of further discuss. And lastly, there was a period of adjustment. Many times adjustments have to be made to assure a smooth transition.

Let me once again remind you that what I am recommending is pure change of the first rank. You must be prepared for this and understand it. Let me suggest that the initial resistance to change will have to be met with patience, eloquence, and perseverance. The result of the collective labors of many is a living breathing document that changes when the need arises, but remains as a solid guide for continued operations.

When I asked for comments on this topic back in 2000, many were the examples forwarded to my office by mutual aid groups around the country. I profited from their willingness to share what they had created with me. We have had a well-defined automatic aid program in place in Howell Township, NJ, for more than 20 years. It allows us to begin sharing resources from the moment that our units are dispatched.

Let me once again tell you what I told you 10 years ago. If you are looking to use automatic aid, mutual aid, and regional dispatching in order to provide fire protection to your community, on the cheap, forget about it. Any group formed on the unequal footing of active versus moochy participant will collapse under the weight of the strain caused by the Mutual Aid Mooch.

I said this a decade ago and I still believe it. The hard part of getting the cheapskate politicians and their political hacks and cronies to understand that there is only way to create an efficient, cost-effective regional fire response. Everyone has to share and share alike. As a fire commissioner, I would never stand for another fire department living off of the largess of my budget.

Let me close with a phrase that I learned a long time ago. There are no free lunches. You have to buy a beer to sit at the buffet. Keep an eye out for those who want to use your money to fund their meal. Frankly it is hard to believe that ten years have passed and that we are no closer to solving this problem as a fire service.

See Harry Carter Live: Harry will be teaching "Fire Department Staffing & Funding" at Firehouse Expo, in Baltimore, on July 24. 

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his "A View From my Front Porch" blog. He recently published Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip. You can reach Harry by e-mail at drharrycarter@optonline.net.

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