Mutual Aid: A Guide to Operational Success

Whenever possible, I like to begin one of my columns by quoting what I believe to be an absolute.  It has been my experience that this is a pretty good way to stimulate debate, because someone will always take exception to my statement; and we then can...


Whenever possible, I like to begin one of my columns by quoting what I believe to be an absolute.  It has been my experience that this is a pretty good way to stimulate debate, because someone will always take exception to my statement; and we then can go on to have an educated discourse (or a heck of a fine fight.) So here we go.

It is my contention that every fire department will at one time or another need some form of mutual aid. No one is so big that they can handle every thing that the fire gods will throw at their community.  My research tells me that Boston is part of an area-wide mutual aid network.  Detroit has brought out of town companies in to assist them at various times.  Even the New York City Fire Department has had occasion to call for outside assistance. 

It is my opinion that every fire department should know what mutual aid is and how it should work in their situation. Every fire department should be able to use it to their best advantage. Many of us cannot do our daily business without it.  As luck would have it, my fire company pager sounded off just as I was sitting down to develop this column for you.

Since it was a daytime response to a reported structure fire in Howell Township, my fire company was dispatched as a backup to the first-due fire company.  While it turned out to be only a case of escaping steam, we were there to assist, if needed.  I see this as mutual aid in its finest form.  I am a firm proponent of people helping people to get the job of fire protection done in their communities.  In many places across America, the delivery of fire protection can occur only when people share resources.

According to Chief Ron Coleman, former California State Fire Marshal, “The fire service is probably the most experienced agency of government in offering and receiving mutual aid. We have been doing it for years.” During my many years of research into the area of fire protection operations, I have noted numerous instances of large-scale mutual aid operations. It goes back a long way.

During the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, firefighting units from as far away as New York City were moved to the scene by train.  Numerous illustrations of similar operations can be found.  And they are still ongoing.  In fact, the state of California can shift firefighting forces all over the state in a studied, systematic manner.

It has been my good fortune to be a member of one of an organization which was created to provide mutual aid to a particular area in the mid-Atlantic area.  I am referring to the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Fireman's Association which was founded on August 15, 1901.  Fire chiefs from the States of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia met in Chambersburg, Pa. for the purpose of adopting a uniform hose coupling and to develop a mutual aid system along the right of way for the Cumberland Valley Railroad (CVR).

General Boyd, a retired member of the Union Army and a principal of the railroad, called the meeting to improve fire protection in the towns that lay along the railroad. Stretching from Harrisburg, Pa., to Harrisonburg, Va., the Cumberland Valley Railroad served as an artery for trade between the four states through which its rights-of-way traverse.  The organization was successful in its development of a mutual aid plan which used the services of the CVR for moving fire apparatus to incidents within the group's response area. 

As fine as these examples are, we must push on and further define what it takes to have a fully functioning mutual aid agreement.  According to Coleman,  “The term ‘mutual aid’ means a recognized agreement between agencies to exchange services under certain conditions."  Over the years we have all moved away from the informal, call-your-neighbors plans of years past.  It is now a recognized fact of liability protection that the mutual aid pacts should to be formal, signed documents, in order to protect all parties concerned.

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