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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 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.

In order for a mutual aid agreement to be fully legal, there must be written, enabling legislation.  This document will spell out the basics of the mutual aid equation:

  • Who is to respond?
  • What equipment and staffing is to be used?
  • When will the mutual aid be used?
  • Where will the forces be used?
  • How are the forces to be employed and under whose command?
  • Why is the form of mutual aid being used?

By way of illustration, let me explain how the Adelphia, N.J., Fire Company interacts with the Farmingdale, N.J., Fire Company in our mutual aid agreement.

To begin with, Farmingdale is much closer to many parts of our fire district than we are.  They can be on location and underway long before we arrive.  Over the years, we were continually impressed by this fact – so much that we began calling them on a regular basis many years ago.

After many years of relying on an informal basis, we went to a written 24-hour-per-day program within a defined geographic area.  For any type of response in the defined Farmingdale Grid area, both of our fire companies are dispatched on a joint, automatic basis.  Whoever arrives on scene first begins the operation.  Our officers work hand in glove together.  And who benefits most?  Let me suggest that it is the citizens of our fire district, who are getting a much faster response to their calls for assistance.

Many times we hear people speak of the fact that automatic mutual aid is not for them.  For, you see, no one fights fire like they do.  Or, no one has a fire district with hazards like theirs; or some other bogus excuse for not wanting to say that they need to have help.  Let me assure you of one, simple, incontrovertible fact.  You can never replace time.  I am referring to the time that it takes for someone to respond to a fire, see that it is a real fire, and then call for mutual aid. In the automatic aid scenario, the equipment from all agencies begins moving at the same time.  If it turns out that it is not needed, it can easily be returned via radio. 

Here is a case where pride truly comes before the fall.  There are metropolitan fire departments of which we are aware that desperately need the help of their neighbors or their neighbors desperately need their help.  Unfortunately, in many of these cases the fire chiefs involved are too shortsighted to see that pooled resources form a stronger overall base of support.  Or perhaps they are just too stubborn to admit that times have changed and the three-alarm response of today is barely equal to the one-alarm response which once existed in their communities.  Whatever the reason, it is time for these people to begin to build bridges, rather than fences.

A word of caution at this time (cheapskates take note): We are not offering mutual aid to you as a cheap cop-out for providing an adequate minimum response for the day-to-day hazards in your jurisdictions.  Mutual aid means that you help me when I need it and I will help you when you need it.”  It does not mean that you are too cheap to buy that aerial ladder or that pumper which you really need and you intend to continually mooch off of your neighbors.  You must bring as much to the dinner table as you intend to ask for.

What we really mean here is that budget officers should not look at mutual aid as a cheap alternative to providing adequate fire suppression forces for the identified hazards in their communities.  You must plan on becoming an active participant in the active give and take which marks a truly effective mutual aid plan.

Above all, do not wait until you are standing in front a burning high school to decide that you need mutual aid. Plan for it and adopt policies which tell you when and where mutual aid will be used.  Let participants know where they stand in the system and what is expected of them.

And be sure to drill together with those people in your mutual aid group.  Iron out your wrinkles on the drill ground, not the fireground, because when you need to get the job done you will have only a small window of opportunity for success.  So go on our there and meet your neighbors, before you need them.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. He is chairman of the Board of Commissioners in Howell Township Fire District 2 and retired from the Newark Fire Department as a battalion commander. Dr. Carter has been a member of the Adelphia Fire Company since 1971, serving as chief in 1991. He is a life member and past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and life member of the National Fire Protection Association. He is president of the United States of America Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) of Great Britain. Dr. Carter holds a Ph.D. in organization and management from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN.