Mutual-aid agreements: Mission-critical to rural public safety
Interagency relationships help solidify the infrastructure of small communities
Mutual-aid agreements (MAAs) codify how agencies share resources. It may sound simple, but these standard documents are far more important than the basic definition implies and are not as “standard” as you might think. The MAA is a legal covenant, a promise between neighbors, a community’s pledge to another that says, “We will be there for you.”
MAAs epitomize the civil society that French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville saw as unique to the United States when traveling around the country in the early-1800s. His study of social conditions in his classic “Democracy in America” brought to light the premise that individuals, families, villages and towns working together were the grassroots of a new social order. He saw it manifest in churches, service groups, fire brigades and militias where freedom, safety and welfare were ensured more by small communities than by bureaucrats in distant capitals.
This same spirit defines today’s MAAs. With the pandemic, economic hardship, civil unrest and crime pushing more people out of cities, these interagency compacts are more important than ever to rural America’s public safety infrastructure. Strategic, well-planned MAAs are foundational to today’s rural renaissance, spurred by remote workers, dispersed businesses, and the growing energy, communications and transportation infrastructure that supports them.
Custom and complex: Understanding MAAs
MAAs can be simple boilerplate documents that are reviewed, approved and signed by fire chiefs, district boards and county officials. You can easily Google contract templates stating that one agency will help another across jurisdictional borders. But relationships between districts and departments are always different and complex enough to deserve case-by-case attention.
Automatic-aid agreements dispatch the closest resources available, usually based on the nearest fire station. Remote districts can be spread so far apart that it’s common for an adjacent fire district to arrive first on the scene in its neighbor’s jurisdiction. In contrast, MAAs can be more ad hoc, where specific resources are only called out when requested by the jurisdictional department.
The type of emergency can also dictate the response. For example, with limited water resources out here on the dry Colorado plateau, our neighboring departments have agreed to automatically deploy tenders with drop tanks for all wildland fire calls.
Rural departments can save tremendous capital expenditures if they know they can count on a neighbor to share specialized resources ranging from aerial pumpers and hazmat apparatus to extrication tools, search and rescue (SAR) gear and medical equipment. On a tactical level, you want to work together with the people who know your districts, resources and limitations so you can identify and close the gaps in response capabilities. Sharing vehicle and equipment inventories as addenda to the agreement itself, and updating them on a regular basis, are elements of MAA best practices.
It’s important to specify incident command structures, supporting law enforcement expectations and reporting protocols. Complexities such as compensation and reimbursement policies are easy to overlook, and you don’t want to have to revisit them after the ink is dry. Agreements typically include timeframes and sunset clauses, and should earn a place on board agendas, standard operating guidelines/procedures (SOGs/SOPs) and schedules for periodic review. Remember to include understandings around amendment processes and the designated responsibilities of administrators.
Depending on what state you’re in, MAAs often require approval and filing with state legislatures. Interstate agreements demand their own special attention, particularly when they involve contract firefighters and emergency personnel on state and federally managed fires. Before you get started, be sure to research the regulatory provisions that govern the creation and operation of MAAs in your state.
Mutual aid does not have to be just about emergency response. Interagency trainings, community service opportunities, co-op mitigation projects and personnel sharing are added bonuses that help build relationships and reduce resource pressure, especially on smaller rural departments.
MAAs in action
Neighboring departments, especially in the wide-open spaces here out West, tend to be independent and self-reliant. In fact, historically, there has been too much tendency to avoid taking steps toward mutual-aid agreements. Most departments are volunteer and thinly staffed, and their governing boards are not necessarily aware of the potential liabilities.
Our little district in Norwood, Colorado, is actually not so little – it’s over 500 square miles. And though we have a longstanding MAA with neighboring Telluride to the east, we only recently came to an agreement with our neighbor to the west, Nucla-Naturita Fire Protection District (NNFPD). Before we had an official agreement, we often wanted to jump into service and help out when we knew NNFPD needed it, and we typically would invite each other to trainings. But without a legal document outlining our agreement to do so, we would be exposed to the liabilities of uninsured firefighters, vehicles and equipment operating in hazardous situations.
In volunteer departments especially, firefighters might take the initiative and bravely run to help a fellow community outside their district, exposing their own district to potentially devastating legal consequences without even knowing it.
Customization is the watchword, and although you can develop an initial draft yourself, it’s best to have an attorney review the agreement to make sure there’s no glaring omissions or points of contentious misunderstanding. Only you and your partner districts can know the mission-critical elements that are unique to your situations, and those should inform your bullet-point outline for legal review. Providing as detailed an outline as possible before presenting to your attorney will save some legal fees.
With this in mind, the following are some basic elements to consider in your own mutual-aid agreements, provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security:
- Definitions of key terms
- Procedures for requesting and providing aid
- Payment, reimbursement and allocation of costs
- Notification procedures
- Roles and responsibilities of individual parties
- Protocols for interoperable communications
- Relationships to other MAAs
- Recognition of licensures and certifications
- Sharing agreements
- Workers’ compensation
- Liability and immunity
- Provisions to update and terminate the agreement
Shortly after Norwood Fire renewed its MAA with the Telluride Fire Protection District (TFPD) last year, multiple agencies and our wildland crew responded to a fire that was getting out of control and threatening residential neighborhoods. The property-defense tactics used are now recognized by Colorado’s West Region Wildfire Council as excellent examples of cooperative fire control and mitigation programs in action. For both prevention and suppression, MAAs are especially useful when fighting wildland fires, where incident commanders need to shift out tired firefighters over many hours. Mutual mitigation projects are thankfully on the upswing, and often require extensive management, labor, time and equipment allocations.
“By building relationships and becoming familiar with each other’s resources, we can work in harmony with Norwood and other agencies,” TFPD Chief John Bennett said. “This is especially important on more significant events like wildland fires where we need more vehicles, water and people.”
Norwood Chief John Bockrath added: “Having mutual aid in place extends our departments and gives us an advantage in difficult situations. We’re able to do a better job, and when we’re on a fire, we have more confidence in knowing that we’ve got more water coming and more people on the way.”
We all want to help each other, but we must be smart about it. With rural America coming of age, we need to grow up a bit and make sure we cross our t’s and dot our i’s in all manner of organizational maturity. Rock-solid mutual-aid agreements are a great place to start. They set us on a path toward cooperation and shared reliance, and away from the insulated attitudes of the past that no longer need to plague rural departments. Across the vastness of our country, MAAs are the safety net for rural emergency response infrastructure and a great way to carry on the legacy of grassroots American self-governance.