Chief’s corner: What is the fire service – mutual aid

Brad Chisholm, Columnist

In my Chief’s Corner postings, I will provide a series on detailed aspects of the Fire Service, first focusing on the importance of Mutual Aid.

Mutual Aid plays a crucial role in the California fire service and involves federal, state, regional, and local approaches.

State and Federal: The California Mutual Aid System is a robust structure that provides mutual aid to all areas in the state facing a crisis. It is an extension of the “neighbor helping neighbor” concept. Though this system includes many agencies, this post will focus on fire-related assistance. The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) organizes and conducts emergency operation planning. The state is divided into six geographically strategic regions that interact and complement each other, each with many local fire agency participants. This structure has proven effective in deploying a diverse range of qualified personnel and appropriate equipment to areas in need. Cal OES also coordinates with the U.S. Forest Service on fires involving federal land. This federal/state relationship and responsibility are frequently employed and are critical to a safe and effective response.

Regional: Regionally, the Lake Tahoe Regional Fire Chiefs Association includes 24 fire agencies from two states and eight counties in the greater Lake Tahoe area. These agencies have agreed to provide immediate resources to any partnering agency in need, free of cost, for 24 hours. This period provides resources from the start of an incident until a larger command structure can be established. This agreement has been effectively utilized numerous times over the decades it has been in place. This association also meets regularly to discuss and act on various topics, including suppression, prevention, evacuation, standards, best practices, mandates, and current events.

Local: Locally, agencies employ Automatic Aid, which is an even more efficient type of Mutual Aid. This approach identifies the closest resource to an incident, and regardless of agency affiliation, automatically dispatches that resource. Resources could include various types of fire engines, ambulances, water tenders, technical rescue teams, chief officers, and other personnel. This system is particularly effective because local, state, and federal fire resources are dispatched from the same emergency command center. This is a very active and essential part of the success of our local agencies’ ability to deliver exceptional service.

Added value to participating in this array of mutual aid systems is the opportunity for firefighters to maintain personal and professional relationships with fellow firefighters, not just during training but also during incidents. It also provides a wider array of experience from complex incidents that one might not encounter if limited to working in their jurisdiction.

The mutual aid structure in California was borne out of necessity decades ago and continues to evolve to help firefighters more effectively and safely serve their communities. California’s mutual aid structure is a model as other states begin to experience the fires that we have faced for decades. Mutual aid is vital in all aspects of the California fire service, whether there is an incident in Southern California, near the Oregon border or in your neighborhood. It is important for our customers to understand this component of our profession and how it plays a significant role in our ability to best serve our region.

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