By Brian P. Kazmierzak
As I travel the country, I am amazed at some of the awesome mutual aid systems that exist. I’m also amazed by the lack of systems, or at least of the lack of the willingness to use the systems. Recently, an assistant chief in Florida refused to send a tanker to another department because of animosity from a funding dispute. This is incredible. There were firefighters in need at a scene, and he refused to send help?! I listen to the scanner in my own area, and every day I hear closer firehouses that are staffed with the same number of well-trained firehouses bypassed on runs for numerous reasons, whether they be longstanding feuds, personality conflicts, or contracts that prevent a fire department from calling mutual aid until it uses all of its resources and calls in its off-duty members first. I sit back and wonder…when will the entire fire service learn that calling mutual aid—or, better yet, automatic aid–is not about us or our fragile egos but rather the service we provide to Mrs. Smith. It is also a firefighter safety issue. It’s pretty sad when we have firefighters calling city council members from responding apparatus because their rig is leaving its district to respond to a working fire. I am sorry, but you have lost focus of why you have joined the fire service if you are complaining about doing your job or going to a working fire to help your brother and sister firefighters!
There are some model systems that exist across the United States that truly provide excellent service for Mrs. Smith. One example is the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS, www.MABAS.org) that was developed in Illinois in the late 1960s and has now spread across the Midwest. Then there are systems that exists in the Indianapolis (IN) and Phoenix (AZ) metro areas. For the sake of this article we will refer to that system as the “border drop” system, where similar type and staffed resources respond to emergencies across borders on the initial dispatch, automatic aid. In this system, it doesn’t matter the color of the fire truck or the name on the door. Units respond together and work together seamlessly each day on every type of incident, from EMS runs to structural fires, regardless of borders. There are no turf battles or contracts that prevent it. In the Hamilton County (OH) area, there is the North East Fire Collaborative (NEFC), which is based out of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department. This system provides automatic aid working together each day, but also incorporates their training divisions into the system as well as formal policies and procedures. NEFC is a true model for other departments to follow. It even allows multiple dispatch centers to dispatch companies outside of their centers normal day-to-day operations. More can be learned about their system at www.NEFCFire.com.
It baffles me when I hear companies from farther away, sometimes even with less staffing, responding to incidents rather than the closest similarly staffed company. Why would we bypass firehouses in this day and age? Just think about what we know about modern fire behavior, intervention time for cardiac arrests, intervention time for a patient potentially bleeding out, etc. I realize there is a difference between automatic aid, mutual aid, and, as Billy Goldfeder puts it, MOOCHING Aid. There are times when departments abuse the mutual aid system to fix a staffing problem or funding issues, etc. But when you have departments that have stations closer to borders and have the same staffing and training, why not use those resources? If we can get on scene quicker and have the same training and equipment, we all should be working together in this day in age for the good of Mrs. Smith.
If we are going to do “border drop” or closest, most-appropriate unit mutual aid, several items need to be in place. The first of those would be standard policies covering such topics as incident command, Mayday, fireground accountability, and radio interoperability. We have to be able to work together seamlessly. Without training, the seamless integration will not occur. Your training divisions need to have as much buy-in as your operations division into this aid system, and joint, multi-company training must be established to get everyone on the same page. Additionally, everyone needs to respect the officers they will be working for on scenes. I know of a horror story where a career firefighter on a mutual aid run filed a grievance because he was given an order by a volunteer chief. We have to have buy-in from all levels for this to happen, but in the end everyone needs to put the egos away and remember: we are all working together regardless of borders for the good of Mrs. Smith.
Brian P. Kazmierzak, EFO, CTO is the division chief of training for the Penn Twp. Fire Dept. in Mishawaka, Indiana. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire service administration from Southern Illinois University and serves as the director of operations for www.FireFighterCloseCalls.com and the Webmaster for www.ModernFireBehavior.com. Brian was the recipient of the 2006 F.O.O.L.S. International Dana Hannon Instructor of the Year Award, the 2008 Indiana Fire Chiefs Training Officer of the Year Award Recipient, and the 2011 International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI)/Fire Engineering George D. Post Fire Instructor of the Year. In addition, Brian completed the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program in 2006. He is a CPSE credentialed Chief Training Officer, serves as a Director at Large for the ISFSI, and is on the UL FSRI PPV Research Study Panel.