Chief’s Corner: Mutual aid works in California
As we approach fire season — and make no mistake, there will be fire season this summer in California, maybe not here, but somewhere — it would be worthwhile to describe how mutual aid works in the fire service.
Mutual aid between fire departments works at a few different levels — think of concentric circles — and varying degrees of frequency.
By far the most common type of mutual aid (or automatic aid) occurs on a daily basis (sometimes a number of times a day) for fire departments in the Truckee-Tahoe region.
An emergency medical call in Squaw Valley typically results in a response from an Advance Life Support (paramedic) engine company from Squaw Valley Fire and an ambulance with paramedics from North Tahoe or Truckee Fire District — it’s an automatic aid response, because the North Tahoe or Truckee resource is automatically dispatched along with the units assigned from the agency having jurisdiction for the incident.
Automatic aid can apply to departments across the state lines, as in the case of North Tahoe and North Lake Tahoe (Incline) fire districts providing seamless coverage to the Kings Beach/Crystal Bay/Incline using personnel and apparatus from both agencies.
Locally, we also have ‘boundary drop’ agreements, which assure that the closest resources will respond to areas on or near the boundary of our service areas — this is particularly valuable as phone calls made to 911 tend to come from cellular phones rather than landlines.
The next level of mutual aid is regionally based — all of the fire departments in this area are signatories to the Lake Tahoe Regional Fire Chiefs’ Association mutual aid agreement, which allows us to request assistance from agencies straddling the state line along the east slope of the Sierra.
It’s a very flexible, all-risk agreement that provides agencies in this region with a very significant amount of resources from the Nevada side of the state line and vice versa.
Brush engines from Reno and Sparks Fire Departments have assisted on wildland fires in California and structure engines from North Tahoe, Squaw Valley, and Truckee have helped out with an apartment complex conflagration in Reno.
At the state level, no one does it better than California. The California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) manages a statewide mutual aid system that is truly remarkable in its size and scope and the vast array of resources that can be provided to an incident anywhere in the state.
The state is divided into seven regions and each region into operational areas (generally counties). The Lake Tahoe Basin is an operational area unto itself, because it encompasses the eastern portions of three California counties as well as Nevada resources. The Operational Area Coordinator (North Tahoe Fire Chief Mike Schwartz for the Tahoe Basin Op Area) does a remarkable job of organizing and monitoring the response of resources when a request is received from CalOES.
Those resources may take the form of apparatus (usually in the form of Strike Teams — five like-units with a leader and common communications) or qualified personnel for incident management positions.
Each of these forms of mutual aid can address a range of incident types and locations, from nearby to far away, but in each case they fulfill the need quickly and efficiently.
We can be proud of our mutual aid capabilities in California, because we’ve developed systems that work reliably and well.
Pete Bansen is the Fire Chief for the Squaw Valley Fire Department.