With reduced staffing levels the rule rather than the exception, today’s fire service must continue to take preplanning seriously. Whether responding to a structure fire, brush fire, medical emergency, or hazardous-materials incident, we must have as much information as possible before we arrive at the scene. The better our planning is prior to an emergency response, the better we will be able to direct our resources toward ensuring an efficient operation. We can ensure proper initialand multiple-alarm response of apparatus and manpower. However, many departments have no standing procedures by which these needed resources are received. If your department does not use up-to-date response cards, it should consider doing so.

Proper response cards are beneficial for the following reasons:

  • They minimize fireground distractions by allowing the fireground commander to summon a predetermined
  • amount of equipment and number of personnel with a simple command (second alarm, etc.) rather than taking the time to indicate verbally what equipment is needed and where it should come from. The dispatcher also is spared this timeconsuming task by being able to simply look up the response card and make the prescribed notifications.
  • Line-box responses (response locations straddling the border between two communities), especially in suburban and rural areas, will be more efficient. Mutualaid companies can respond to a call when they hear it dispatched.
  • Mutual-aid companies listed on response cards will have the opportunity to preplan some of their responses before they actually are called.
  • Without good response cards, some communities tend to get “stripped” of their apparatus and personnel, while other communities’ resources are not used at all. Because of increasing economic pressures, few communities can absorb the resulting drain on their finances. Good response cards will help prevent these inequities.
  • Operating from response cards also will help minimize mutual-aid “freelancing” and its associated operational problems.

Whether your responsibilities include rural, suburban, or urban communities or a combination of the above, response cards are essential for efficient operations. Naturally, the response cards will vary in makeup and operation, but recognize that all response cards share common characteristics.


Integrating response cards into your operations takes time and effort. Don’t expect results overnight. One approach is to create a small committee of three to five individuals to do the work. The committee should include a chairperson, a representative(s) from the dispatchers, as well as a representative cross-section of your department. Remember, the committee will do the lion’s share of the work, but the rest of the department should contribute ideas and constructive comments. People adapt better to change if they feel they have played a part in that change. Try to utilize your resources—if a person in your department has special skills, use them.

Time invested in researching the way other departments are dealing with this issue is time well spent. Collect as much information as possible, with an eye for the most desirable features of each system.

Focus on the facts. Throw out any old (or new) politics involved. Your aim is to provide the best emergency response possible for the citizens and firefighters of your district. If your department doesn’t use mutual aid from a department because of an event that happened decades ago, no one’s interest is being served.

Keep an open mind. You may need to perform a survey of your mutual-aid communities covering response times, equipment compatibility, special equipment, staffing of apparatus, local policies regarding the response of personnel and equipment out of the communities, time involved in getting apparatus on the road, and so forth. Many communities have requirements for formal written mutualaid pacts. If your response area is on the edge of a regional fire district, integrating your requirements into a mutual-aid system of which you are not a part may be a concern.


Alter you complete your research, you must choose a format for your cards. Do you want one card that services your entire response area? One card for every street? One card for every fire district in your community? What about line boxes? Districts without hydrants? Residential vs. industrial areas? How will you account for target hazard responses? The format you chse must be compatible with the equipment in your dispatching center. Response cards can be traditional or computerized. If you are or plan to be computerized, be sure your cards conform to the parameters of the computer system.

Your response cards must be simple and easy to read. If your community uses a municipal fire alarm system, the cards must be indexed by box area as well as byaddress. The card must contain initial alarm assignments: line box responses, any special equipment, such as tankers, etc.; multiple-alarm assignments; water supply information: special hazards: and mutual-aid ambulance response, if it is your responsibility.

Using your research as well as input from within and outside the committee, you can now formulate the responsecards. When choosing responses to any particular area of the community, you maywant to break up the area into several “chunks” that would necessitate approximately the same response. For instance, we used a map and divided the town of Concord into 11 areas we felt have similar access routes, population ty pes (e.g, residential, commercial, and so forth), and special hazards and concerns. We then formulated initialand multiple-alarm responses tor each of the areas. We gave every street the responses that were selected for that area. This, of course, means you may have to break up long streets into more than one area. You also will have to make some alterations in some special circumstances. Overall, however, this procedure will provide the committee with a basic, solid set of response cards that then can be implemented.



Remember, no matter how carefully you have planned your response cards, legitimate concerns may arise and peoplemay point out problems you either did not consider or may not have addressed sufficiently. Such interaction is beneficial and should be encouraged. After your rough draft is complete, provide a comment period for the purpose of correcting or improving on what has been written. Remember to include the dispatchers in this process, since they will have unique operational insight to offer and are qualified to point out any improvements to the format that might be needed. This period should be at least two to three weeks long, to give personnel sufficient time to thoughtfully respond.

After this period of time, the committee should consider all suggestions and implement any necessary changes. After the final set of response cards is ready, dispatchers and fire personnel must be trained in the cards’ use. The cards then should be implemented on a trial basis of at least four to six weeks to allow all personnel involved to get accustomed to using the system.

The directives involved in implementing the response cards should become part of your department’s SOPs. Dispatchers should be aware of the importance of filling the station coverage assignments promptly to minimize response times to the scene should an additional alarm be ordered.

You will find that the cards are never really “final.” There will be a continuous need to update the response cards. The majority of the changes will come in the beginning, but the need will always be present. The committee should meet periodically to address concerns and improvements regarding the continued operation of the system.

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