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Automatic and mutual aid: The response conundrum

In theory, automatic aid sounds like it would benefit all departments and jurisdictions involved, but that may not always be the case


When entering into an automatic aid agreement, its best to realize who will be the predominate giver and who will be the perennial receiver.


When is automatic aid no longer an equal partnership? How does a fire or EMS department in one jurisdiction avoid becoming the primary respondent for neighboring jurisdictions without the corresponding funding to support this increased demand for service? This is a conundrum for a growing number of chief officers across the country.

Equally distressing for these chiefs is the knowledge that their neighboring chief is not the issue, but that his or her department can no longer field a 24/7/365 department because of staffing, funding, political support or community apathy. The citizen indifference may be due to the fact that when they call 911, someone comes – even when the name on the door of the fire truck or EMS vehicle is not the name of their own community.

The dichotomy for the chief providing mutual aid/automatic aid is that, without their services, someone in a neighboring community may die in a fire or from a medical emergency aggravated by a delay in emergency response.

On the other hand, the chief providing mutual aid is expending funds, reducing the number of staff available for response in their jurisdiction, and potentially increasing the response time to an emergency in their own jurisdiction without some means of adequate compensation, since the neighboring department is unavailable to reciprocate.

Why automatic aid?

True automatic aid has several advantages:

  • Response from the closest station.
  • Avoiding apparatus duplication.
  • Quickly getting to the NFPA 1710 or NFPA 1720 staffing levels for a structure fire.
  • Sharing specialty services.
  • Increased availability of staff officers for ICS at major incidents.
  • Help with ISO class rating.

1. Response from the closest fire station

Under automatic aid, it doesn’t matter if the neighboring community has one or a dozen stations. If the closest station is properly staffed and adheres to the same set of standard operating guidelines for emergency operations as yours, then having the closest station respond as part of the initial call provides a better, quicker and more uniform response. These SOGs, however, must include standard terminology and benchmarks from the initial size-up to the incident being declared under control, and provide agreed upon standards, such as the first engine establishing its own water supply, first aerial providing search and rescue, etc.

2. Avoiding duplicating specialty apparatus

No one needs to be reminded of the price tag of today’s fire apparatus. A new aerial ladder can easily cost between $800,000 and $1,200,000, depending on its reach and options. A rescue apparatus may not cost as much as an aerial, but there is considerable investment in the training and expertise of the personnel dedicated to such companies so they can perform the precise tasks assigned to those specialty units.

When a department shares these types of units via automatic aid, it is not only a matter of avoiding the duplication of equipment among the participating departments, but also sharing an asset among specifically trained personnel. Thus, an even trade may be sending an aerial to a neighboring community for a structure fire, while the neighboring community may send you a boat and dive team for a water rescue.

3. Getting to NFPA 1710 or NFPA 1720

One of the distinct advantages to automatic aid should be the ability to reach the required number of trained personnel under NFPA standards at an emergency scene more quickly, in part to assure overall firefighter safety:

  • NFPA 1710: Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments.
  • NFPA 1720: Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments.

Again, operating within agreed upon SOGs, the order of arrival on scene should automatically be key for the assignment of the arriving apparatus and its personnel.

4. Staff fire officers for incident command

On major incidents such as structure fires, the response of additional staff officers from automatic aid departments can help fill critical positions in the incident command system, such as safety, accountability, staging or liaison officers, a plus for firefighter safety.

5. Help with ISO class rating

Finally, fire units provided via automatic aid, such as engines, aerials, water tenders or rescues, that augment your own department’s assets, can provide additional credit toward your community’s ISO Classification Rating. If you haven’t yet had an ISO inspection under their new guidelines, investigate how automatic aid can help improve your overall score.

Solving the mutual aid conundrum

With these great advantages in being a part of an automatic aid system, what could be the down side? Realistically, if your department has more staffing, apparatus or specialty training than your neighbors, the main advantage is that you get an additional fire company on the scene faster to quickly reach the NFPA firefighter safety staffing standard for a structure fire. This can be a significant advantage and worth the times that your department is contributing assets to your neighboring communities.

There will always be some one-sided aspects to automatic aid, or perhaps even a growing feeling that others are taking advantage of your department’s skill sets.

Limit the number of units on automatic aid

For larger departments, one solution to always being the giver and hardly ever the receiver of automatic aid is to pre-agree that no more than perhaps two units will respond on automatic aid to an incident in a neighboring community, thus keeping an adequate number of your stations in service to cover your own jurisdiction. Retaining an adequate number of personnel and apparatus to handle most other emergencies usually avoids a negative impact on your own response time for services to the citizens within their own jurisdiction.

Another possible solution during an automatic aid response could be to simultaneously back-fill select stations within your affected area by moving up crews and equipment from departments a further distance away.

Consolidation of services

I’ve also seen some innovative solutions to the automatic aid staffing issue. Two adjacent, equally-sized departments had staffing cuts amounting to three firefighter and paramedics remaining on duty at each department per day. The mayors and councils of both cities vehemently opposed merging the two departments, so the fire chiefs agreed upon a consolidation of services that made sense.

Every other day, one department would staff an engine, while the other a paramedic unit. Both units would respond to fires, EMS calls and other emergencies within either jurisdiction to give an adequate initial crew. Thus, for automatic aid purposes, the surrounding departments could count on their combined response with at least one unit from these two jurisdictions.

In a perfect world, where every department is equally staffed and trained, automatic aid would be an outstanding program. It would avoid duplication of personnel or apparatus where each department contributes both a regular service and a specialty.

But, realistically, when entering into an automatic aid agreement, its best to realize who will be the predominate giver and who will be the perennial receiver. It is best to go into an automatic aid agreement with your eyes open than to be either disappointed or disappointing to the other participants.

Stay safe!

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.