Fire chief: When to say no to mutual aid

Politics, egos or funding is never a reason to deny a fire department mutual aid

Recently, I made a leadership presentation to a group of firefighters in the Yakima Valley, Wash. My first task was to get oriented with the teaching venue and my soon-to-be audience.

As part of my standard preparation routine, I closely observed the on-stage speaker. I will admit that my purpose was to watch for the crowd's reaction to the instructor's delivery style.

Next, I paid attention to the room lighting, the air temperature, the effectiveness of the sound system and like ancillary items. Based on the participant's reaction, I realized that I was missing a skillful message on a very important topic — personal effectiveness.

For 40 minutes, I watched a fire chief discuss relationships, perspectives and perceptions. He nailed his topic and held the attendees spellbound.

The part of the lecture that was of great interest to me was how the chief demonstrated each of the traits described in his teachings.

For years, his department had "relationship" difficulties with a neighboring fire department. By making a concerted effort to build a better relationship between the two departments, the chief not only eliminated the difficulties, but developed partnerships on common causes — like mutual aid.

Now the focus is how can the two agencies save lives and property in their region whenever and wherever they were needed to help. What a success story the chief shared, with the sole focus of mutual aid being the service delivery to the customers in their time of desperate need.

When to render aid
As a reasonably well-traveled fire rescue service member, my belief is that most North American communities work together on regional problems of common concern, interest and solution.

By observation, adjoining departments work together seamlessly to help whenever and wherever they are asked. Most always, there is spirited, friendly and healthy competition between adjoining departments operating at a same event.

Geographical boarders, neighborhood demographics, socioeconomic status or the ability to pay for our service does not come into play during the heat of battle. All fire departments are morally obligated to respond to alarms, solve the associated problems to the best of our ability, be nice to all, and then everyone goes home.

If requested, reimbursement is a post-incident process and correspondingly handled after the fact of the operational response. In the best case, the payment for service is the commitment to be there when asked by another department.

This is such a simple and mutually beneficial procedure for all public safety agencies to follow.

It is stunning to learn that there are still mutual-aid controversy raging in our nation. Further, to learn that the refusal to lend the requested aid is associated with funding is unconscionable in my opinion.

History's lessons in aid
Simply flash back to Sept. 11, 2001 and closely examined what occurred on that day regarding mutual aid. The second largest fire department in the world was unable to handle everything that was thrown at it on that horrible day.

Mutual aid did not involve just adjoining agencies; it was needed from five or six entire state response systems.

Move the clock up to Aug. 29, 2005 as the category 5 storm hits the shores of the Gulf of Mexico states. Hundreds of lives were lost with more than $100 billion in property damage incurred along the costal areas.

At that time, I worked for the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. That agency deployed 84 members over 21 days (42 firefighters rotated mid-cycle) to Biloxi, Miss., to answer a mutual aid request. Just before we deployed to provide the requested help, the governing body had to authorize the department to travel and approved the funding (operationally and back-fill).

The Atlanta City Council voted unanimous to send our neighbors, which were eight hours away the help they requested. No politics. No funding concerns.

A reoccurring problem
The department helped its neighbors without the demand to be repaid because they were in desperate need. The only difference between Katrina and the family in Walton County, Fla. whose house was burning was the scale of the disaster; the need was obvious.

"Solito negotium" is latin for business as usual. It seems like the same issues associated with mutual aid reoccur every four or five years, hence the business as usual part.

It is time to put this controversy to rest once and for all. When a fire rescue department is requested, they should respond to help their neighbors. If the department is not available because of staffing, on-going active response or broken apparatus that is understanding and that should be quickly communicated to those asking for the help.

However, failure to respond over financial, political or ego-driven reasons is always unacceptable. We signed up to provide service when and where we are needed.

Our motto of "Honor - Duty – Courage" should be more than just words. It needs to be lived. Be safe out there.

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