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...

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.