The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) United States Fire Department Profile Through 2014 Fact Sheet1 reported that 66 percent of the fire departments in the nation are staffed by “all volunteers.” These departments protect 19 percent of the nation’s population. A problem that plagues these departments is ensuring an adequate response of personnel and apparatus to structural fires in their primary response area. To combat these issues, many local jurisdictions sign mutual-aid agreements with neighboring fire departments. Mutual-aid agreements usually designate that a neighboring department will respond into another fire department’s first-due area to assist on working incidents and vice-versa.
Issues with Mutual-Aid Incidents
While being able to rely on neighboring communities to assist at working incidents is valuable in the volunteer fire service, it also creates other issues for incident commanders. Among these are personnel qualifications, standard operating guidelines, communications, apparatus and equipment.
When outside personnel respond in to your first-due area, do you really know what you are getting as a trained firefighter? Who is on deck to bat next? Fire departments have varying standards on what qualifies members to enter a burning building. A common accepted practice is to have firefighters, at a minimum, complete the NFPA 1403: Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions2 series of certification courses. However, the NFPA 1001: Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications3 defines the minimum level of training for competent firefighters. Not having structural firefighters trained to this standard could open fire departments up to liability should the unthinkable happen. It is understandable that this may not be an obtainable standard for all communities due to other issues in the volunteer fire service. Nonetheless, it is a point that should be considered.
Another point to consider is the level of physical fitness and health of the firefighters that are responding. The NFPA United States Fire Department Profile Through 2014 Fact Sheet also shows that over 25 percent of the firefighters in the nation are older than the age of 50. The aging of members in the fire service comes primarily from a lack of volunteerism of the younger generations in volunteer fire departments. While aging does not define lacking in physical fitness or poor health, it can be argued that that it does have some bearing on the issue. This being considered, incident commanders should understand that assisting firefighters that were once considered to be “aggressive” may not be able to perform like they once could.
Standard Operating Guidelines
All volunteer fire departments regardless of size or staffing model should have standard operating guidelines (SOGs) so that all members know how to operate at a given incident. What SOGs do your neighboring fire departments have in place and what do they say? As an incident commander giving an assignment, you may expect a certain set of tasks to be completed in a particular manner. However, if the other firefighters rely on a different SOG, they may conduct those operations differently. Considering and reviewing these items ahead of time can make incident commanders aware of such instances.
Another problem that presents itself when giving or receiving mutual-aid is fireground communications. What radio system(s) do all your neighboring departments utilize? Certainly there are ways to overcome the use of multiple radio systems, but it is something that needs to be considered before an incident occurs. All departments that respond together should evaluate how they will communicate in a neighboring jurisdiction. Incident commanders should be aware of this developed plan so that it can be implemented at the time of an incident.
Apparatus and Equipment
Lastly, apparatus and other equipment resources brought to the emergency scene often affect the incident outcome. What types of apparatus do your assisting departments send when responding to your area? How are they equipped? Most incident commanders, especially in rural areas, focus on the amount of water a mutual-aid company will be able to carry. However, a piece of apparatus should also be well equipped. If a neighboring fire department responds with six members and a truck that only carries four self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), then that department has effectively only sent four equipped firefighters to the scene.
Fixing the Issues
There are steps that incident commanders can take to alleviate these issues of interoperability before an incident ever occurs. The first is to foster personal relationships with fire officers from neighboring fire departments. The second is to leverage county or regional firefighting associations as a place to openly discuss these issues in the greater response areas.
There is no way that an incident commander can possibly remember every detail about every member or piece of apparatus that will respond from a neighboring department. However, there should be a few fire officers from those departments that can be reliable. Utilizing these officers’ evaluations or decision making power can be beneficial during mutual-aid incidents. These officers can be given an assignment directly. Then, the officers should evaluate their personnel and equipment resources at hand to determine if the assignment is appropriate.
A good person to utilize for this task is the department’s training officer or those involved in training. They are most likely to be knowledgeable about particular members’ strengths and weaknesses. They are also typically well informed about their department fire apparatus and equipment capabilities. Most importantly, this person has to be someone that can be trusted to give you honest, quick feedback at an incident. Fireground operations do not allow room for a false sense of operational capabilities.
County or Regional Firefighting Associations
County or regional firefighting associations allow an open forum for fire departments to get together and discuss issues as problems arise. One area that these associations could focus their attention is standard operating guidelines (SOGs). The respective association should not necessarily write the SOGs for each department to use, but could provide some type of model guidelines to be used. At the least, arising issues in operations can be discussed and member fire departments can work together to find a solution that is agreeable for all.
These associations can also be the base for group purchasing agreements. Group purchasing could allow the member fire departments to make similar capital purchases at a lower rate. These large-expense purchases could include fire apparatus and radios. Purchasing equipment with similar specifications only increases interoperability in the greater response area.
With increasing personnel and budget constraints placed on the volunteer fire service of today, interoperability among neighboring departments will be an ongoing issue. This article just highlights a few areas were potential problems exist, and it gives a few ideas on how to combat the problems. No matter what is encountered, teamwork and dedication will allow the problems to be solved. This has always been a cornerstone of the volunteer fire service, and it certainly will be in the future. It is truly what makes the service an asset to the people of the United States, and those are who we have been called to serve.
- NFPA. (2014). The U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 2014 Fact Sheet.
- NFPA. (2012). NFPA 1403: Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions.
- NFPA. (2013). NFPA 1001: Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications.