Beware the Mutual Aid Mooch

I am a strong advocate of mutual aid, automatic aid, and regional dispatching. I see it as an effective way to create a regional firefighting force capable of coming together in a rapid manner for the common good. I take a bit of flak now and then for championing this approach to fire service delivery and deployment, but that's OK.

What really galls me is that group of people that I am now going to publicly grant a nickname to for the first time. These folks are members of a group of fire service cheapskates that I intend to start calling 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.

The same 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, they name streets after people like this. You know them, the streets with the arrows that say 'one way'.

A recent message to my web site took me 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.

I was going to let this matter lie, because I didn't agree with much of what this person had to say. But it did cause me to think. Let me state my views once again for all to hear. 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 to the tenets 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, I must add that I detest fire service cheapskates. 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. Theirs broke down, and they claimed that they did not have enough money to buy a new one. This was one of those time 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. There 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 to handle their initial attack firefighting requirements until they can muster an appropriately staffed attack team. However, when they are asked if they intend to hire career staff for their firefighting operation, they state that this is not necessary, since they have the people coming in from the next district. Here is where I start to get upset. Here is another example of being a mutual aid mooch.

If I am to be an advocate for an idea, then I would suggest 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.

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. They then must 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. 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.

I would like to thank Mr. Curtis St. John for sharing the Recommended Operational Guidelines for Genesee County Fire Chief's Association, in Michigan. He indicated that the strength of their operations grows out of a mutual understanding of the shared strength of the members of their organization. The first guidelines I reviewed date from the early 1980's. There are a series of updates that fine-tuned the operations over time. These facts reinforce my recommendations regarding the ongoing, evolutionary process of an effective mutual aid operation.

Mr. St. John spoke of the initial resistance to change that had 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. The planners inserted language that allows a community not to respond, if they so choose. Mr. St. John indicated in a recent e-mail that, " my 20 in the fire service I have never know of a department to refuse giving aid in Genesee County. In fact at times aid has been given at the expense of maintaining fire protection in their own jurisdiction. But, that is the beauty of our fire coordination system. It the fire coordinators responsibility to insure that no jurisdiction is without fire protection."

There were many other examples forwarded to my office by mutual aid groups around the country. I shall be mentioning them from time to time, in order to further refine my ideas. The number of detractors has been minimal, and even they have allowed me to think harder and create a tighter focus for my ideas on this critical topic.

So if you are looking to automatic aid, mutual aid, and regional dispatching to arrange for fire protection 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.