Were They Prepared?

In a departure from our normal Close Calls format, we want to provide some thoughts on the Hurricane Katrina situation from a fire standpoint, as it in many respects relates directly to what we do cover here each month. This is being written on...


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You cannot successfully lead an emergency agency unless you have training and experience, loads of "built-up-over-time" experience, in handling emergencies. No group is more qualified than firefighters. It,s time to put fire people back in "real" charge at the federal level.

It's All About "We"

As hinted above, the first place anyone should look to prepare and plan is locally. But I am not talking about the Gulf states right now. Instead, this is a time to look at how effective each of our fire departments is in working with other area departments. Are you responding regularly with neighboring mutual aid fire departments? If so, are you doing training and drilling with them regularly? If not, it's time to do so.

How fast and calmly can your area get 100 engines and 500 firefighters from your area, county or state going in one direction? Are they able to talk on the same radio channels? Forget repeaters; can they talk radio to radio? Or can you bring self-generating repeaters with you? Do the firefighters all follow and understand the same standard operating procedures (SOPs)? How quickly can your area get 50 rescue boats with qualified personnel? How about ambulances? Are all area fire departments using the same exact personnel accountability system? What is the disaster plan? Is it easy to follow, understand and execute? Where is it stored?

We all know the drill.

How well trained are your emergency management people? What are the roles between your fire department and the local and state emergency management agencies? If it's great, keep it going. If not, it's time to fix it. Maybe you don't live in an area that is prone to hurricanes, but odds are you are "prone" to fires, mass-casualty events and related "not everyday" emergencies. Could your fire department handle an emergency with a couple of hundred victims?

When you look at the big picture, to me at least, this has a lot less to do with things such as "federal funding" and related stuff like that and much more about relationships, attitudes and focus. Ever seen fire apparatus pass several other firehouses because those two "other" chiefs like (or don't like) each other? Personality-based mutual aid is alive and well in some areas, but thankfully most areas are starting to get it and fix the problem for the good of the firefighters, and the public.

Mutual aid has been around forever, but it means different things to different people. Some areas have mutual aid, which is when the incident commander calls for help once it is determined that help is needed. Some areas have "automatic" mutual aid, where responses are pre-planned to ensure plenty of the correct resources arrive quickly. Both work well as long as there is a plan, standardization, training and leadership to go along with it.

National Mutual Aid?

I can't seem to get this question off my mind: Is it time for a national fire mutual aid system? This would be a new system led and coordinated by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) in full cooperation with the national fire service organizations. This isn't new. This has been discussed for decades in the fire service, and the need has been proven more and more.

Honestly, I think it is time for a national fire mutual aid system, and the feds can support it and assist. That is what the government is supposed to do. Maybe an expanded version of existing "state" or regional fire mutual aid systems is the answer.

Many areas of the U.S. have very successful, well-oiled, tested and non-bureaucratic yet formal mutual aid systems. They are working in such places as Florida, California, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Ohio, the Washington, DC, area's COG System and so many others. And the fact that many of these working systems do exist solves half the problem, because they would all fit in almost perfectly. But there are some areas of the U.S. that have no effective and organized mutual aid systems and they would have several "models" to choose from.

One excellent medium-size operation is the Southwestern New Hampshire District Fire Mutual Aid System. Well over 100 fire-rescue departments in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont are working cooperatively, because they "want" to, and have been since 1953!