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Shared structures: A case study on the impact of automatic mutual aid

Outside of formal consolidation, there are useful ways to improve coordination through common dispatch centers, training standards and ICS


Does your department engage in automatic mutual aid?

Photo/Fort Worth Fire Department

At one point in the recent history of the American fire service, there was a push for consolidations of departments into a single department, primarily due to budgetary concerns, not service delivery. In some cases, it meant that several smaller departments might be integrated into one large department, perhaps on the county level.

It should be noted that in countless areas of this country, there are strong ties between their fire department and the community or communities they serve. In many cases, a community’s independent identity is directly linked to the fire department of the same name. So how might those departments survive and maintain credible service levels?

One answer could be automatic aid – not just response into another’s jurisdiction, but an agreement among several departments to use a common dispatch center; consistent training standards, including a credible Incident Command System; and an agreement to respond into one another’s area on the initial dispatch. Such an agreement came together recently to pay dividends.

Common SOPs

Hamilton County, Ohio, surrounds the City of Cincinnati and has 29 additional cities, villages or townships covered by 20 fire departments or fire districts of all shape and sizes, from large multi-station departments to those with one station and a few square miles of response area.

While these are separate entities, the Hamilton County fire chiefs representing most of these departments have agreed to a set of standard operating procedures (SOPs), training standards and an automatic-aid agreement for response into other surrounding jurisdictions on a first-alarm assignment. These agreements cross both county and even state borders, with the understanding that the closest response to a fire may be from a neighboring department.

Here is an example of how the agreement worked on a recent call.

Complex fire operations

Early in June, the Forest Park (Ohio) Fire Department, along with three neighboring departments, were dispatched for a structure fire in the northwest area of the city. The initial report from a neighbor was that they had heard a loud boom and then could see flames coming from a neighbor’s home.

The dispatch by the Hamilton County Communications Center (HCCC) included five engines, two ladders, a medic unit and two battalion chiefs.

Shortly after dispatch, the Communications Center relayed that a second caller thought there were still occupants in the structure, which showed heavy smoke and fire from the exterior. Still en route to the scene, Forest Park’s Ladder 42 notified the other responding units on the fireground channel that they saw a heavy column of smoke from the area.

Colerain Township’s Engine 109, with Lt. Steve May as the OIC, arrived first on the scene, and his initial size-up included these points:

  • The residential structure was fully involved;
  • All occupants were out of the structure;
  • Active fire was not only in the initial structure but also on the Bravo and Delta side residential exposures;
  • They were initiating command;
  • They declared the incident a defensive fire and ordered a second-alarm assignment to be dispatched.

To add to these issues, the houses involved were located on a cul-de-sac, allowing only one way in or out for street access.

HCCC monitoring the fireground traffic, then began dispatching an additional five engines, two ladders, a second medic unit as well as several chief officers on their primary dispatch channel.

Engine 109 established a water supply and began controlling the main body of fire with its deluge nozzle. Engine 109’s officer assigned the arriving Forest Park units (two engines and a ladder) to the Delta side exposure, adding that they needed to ensure that the residents were out of that structure.

At this point, a pole-to-house electrical power line failed between the residence of origin and the Bravo exposure, requiring a hazard zone to be set up in an already confined area of operation.

Colerain’s Captain Shaun Stacy, acting as a battalion chief, assumed command from Engine 109 and re-emphasized that operations were in the defensive mode. He then assigned the remaining first-alarm assignment, Springdale and Fairfield’s engines as well as North College Hill’s quint, to the Bravo side exposure, then requested a Conditions, Actions, Needs (CAN) report from both the Alpha and Delta divisions.

Subsequent arriving chief officers were assigned to take over the Bravo and Delta divisions, as well as establishing a Charlie division to determine the fire conditions in the rear of all three of the involved structures.

The responding second-alarm assignment was staged on an adjacent street, and crews were assigned “on deck” and rotated with the initial-alarm assignment as needed.

It was quickly determined that the structure of origin had suffered some type of natural gas explosion and resulting fire, so command informed the HCCC that they needed both Duke Energy gas and electrical assistance to the scene. Duke response quickly handled the downed power line, eliminating that as a hazard for those operating on all three structures. Once the fires in the Bravo and Delta exposures were controlled, the Alpha residence gas fire was allowed to continue until the gas to that residence was shut off by a separate Duke Energy crew.

During these operations, the residents of the Bravo exposure repeatedly began to approach close to their residence trying to re-enter their home. A firefighter was assigned to ascertain what they needed, and then firefighters went inside, later telling the occupants that everything was fine. In their haste to leave, the residents had left their oven and stove on while cooking their evening dinner. The firefighters found a pan on the stove that had begun to fill the kitchen with smoke and quickly averted a potential kitchen fire.

Companies remained on the scene for several hours checking for any extension throughout the three structures.

Post-incident debrief

In the hot wash meeting afterwards, representatives from the departments involved voiced that the operation could only have been this successful because of their shared SOPs, a universally adopted Incident Command System, and a dedicated fire dispatcher assigned to the fireground channel to handle the additional requests or needs from command.

This incident was a prime example of how SOPs, coupled with an automatic-aid agreement, may become one method to help maintain a community’s and fire department’s identity while providing the benefits similar to that of a single amalgamated department.

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.