The first-due mission: It’s about service to your community

It’s not about who gets there first, who you like to work with, or the calls you want to run


“Hey, that’s MY area, why are THEY running it?”

Don’t you wish you had a dime for every time you’ve heard something like that?

Now I won’t pretend that I never uttered something similar as a young(er) officer, and I’m sure many of you have as well. It’s understandable – we are passionate about the job! But there’s certainly more to the story.

First-due boundaries have evolved – and continue to evolve based on a variety of factors: chiefs’ agreements, mileage, municipal boundaries, community organizations, taxing arrangements, GPS/GIS measurements, etc.
First-due boundaries have evolved – and continue to evolve based on a variety of factors: chiefs’ agreements, mileage, municipal boundaries, community organizations, taxing arrangements, GPS/GIS measurements, etc. (Photo/Getty Images)

We all understand that there are statutory reasons why certain addresses get certain responses: jurisdictional boundaries, federal status, use/occupancy, material status, etc. But those aren’t the factors that I want to talk about here. Rather, let’s talk about who we work with, how we interact with other crews and our personal mindset on each call.

Defining the first due

First-due boundaries have been developed in myriad ways throughout fire service history. Some first-due area designations were rooted in a seemingly random “dartboard” approach, with no mileage or technical assessments, while some were determined simply by who liked who and who wanted to go where, and others by arbitrary or insurance-related decisions. First-due boundaries have evolved – and continue to evolve based on a variety of factors: chiefs’ agreements, mileage, municipal boundaries, community organizations, taxing arrangements, GPS/GIS measurements, etc.

Fire station locations in many instances were originally chosen based on construction of communities or concentrations of populations. While that may still be a factor today, departments with multiple stations spread them out to ensure there’s adequate coverage. This generally helps reduce Insurance Services Office (ISO) ratings – ratings that measure a department’s ability to meet various NFPA standards.

Today, while many EMS systems use dynamic dispatching models based on call volumes, many fire departments identify first-due geographic boundaries as administrative/inspections first dues only and use automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems to satisfy dispatches, presumably ensuring the closest appropriate unit responds to calls.

Operating in harmony

Systemic success is built on the success of the parts operating in harmony. If you are constantly out of your first-due for non-call-related activities, you are likely minimizing the likelihood of success for your “part.” Similarly, if you are at odds with others in your first due, you’re likely failing your community by not maximizing the use of appropriate available resources.

I fully recognize that many fire and EMS agencies operate with independent chain-of-commands and with different rules and procedures. I am reminded of a particular dust-up in 2020 involving the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau and EMS agency – two distinct departments, led by different chiefs, each agency with their own philosophy and organizational missions. The situation publicly came to a head (no pun intended) when a child’s head was stuck between bars on a playground. Fire and EMS crews arrived simultaneously and determined a hydraulic tool should be used to free the child. EMS reportedly radioed their nearby truck to bring the spreader, but the battalion chief ordered a fire crew to use their tool, which was already on scene. Words were exchanged – radio traffic that was made public and a media frenzy followed – all over which should be the crew to perform the job.

I’d like to believe that most jurisdictions would have worked together in the interest of the child to get this done as quickly and safely as possible – which I believe the fire department accomplished here. But still, the debate over who has the right to treat the patient was embarrassing for all involved.

While some of the “who-likes-who” decisions for response patterns in first dues have been eradicated through the implementation of electronic tools, there are still many departments where first-due coverage is decided based on who-likes-who and who-trusts-who. I cannot emphasize enough how dangerous this mindset is, not only for your communities that depend on you to bring the closest appropriate resources to their incident, but also for your firefighters who deserve the closest unit responses as their backup firefighters. I acknowledge that there are statutory/municipal challenges to some of this response, and I understand that there are many who won’t change simply because of my admonition. The best advice I can give these folks is to simply add “your honor” to the end of your flawed reasoning for not alerting the closest appropriate resources to your fires. Taking a moment to consider how your decision would look in a courtroom is often all the wake-up call needed.

Accepting the ALL-hazards mission

The key word in “all-hazards service” is ALL. When you are out on the street, it cannot be about what we WANT to run, who else we THINK should run it, or what we think we SHOULD run. And this is not the article to argue whether the fire service should be running this or that, but whether we are answering our calls with the same abandon every time.

Mission success must be measured as much by the saves and grabs as it is by compliance within the system – completing inspections, delivering education and prevention talks, preplanning, training, exercising and, yes, following the rules. We must put all our personal preferences aside when the bell rings and Grandma Jones asks for our help, no matter the call type.

To me it all comes back to what’s best for the mission: What’s best for Grandma Jones? While we tend to justify differences in procedures based on history, tradition and jurisdictional or cultural differences, that’s mostly bunk in my book. Real and proverbial fires do indeed burn the same in my backyard as they do in yours. The real difference is the quantity, quality, and expertise of the people and stuff we’re able to bring to the “fire.”

And remember, it is NOT your first-due area. Our citizens are served by many parts of a much larger system, not merely the fire trucks answering fire calls or whatever type of call is your interest. Your first priority is the mission – and the same holds true for the next crew and the next crew after that.

Just do the right thing

I think we can all agree that it’s our responsibility to cover the mission, at all reasonable costs. You’re educated and you’ve trained to get here, to understand what’s a “go/no-go” situation, to identify and recognize the signs or survivability, and ultimately to make life-or-death decisions, every day. Now it’s time to JDTRT – just do the right thing.

JDTRT means doing the job that’s in front of you regardless of who’s first due or whether you like running that type of call. Together you and your fellow firefighters own the mission – not the fire trucks, not the streets, not equipment … the mission.

This isn’t a daycare center or high school drama club – please leave the crying and drama to them. We are a public safety team, so let’s make sure we ACT like it, whether anybody’s watching or not!

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