‘Who Likes Who’ mutual aid: We must stop this pervasive problem
Recent incidents highlight issues of favoritism and territorialism clouding decisions around mutual-aid response
Several months ago, I wrote about the 2022 fatal house fire in Churchill, Pennsylvania – an incident where the on scene chief refused to call the City of Pittsburgh for help despite there being two staffed stations less than 5 minutes away. Instead, the chief called for specific outside mutual-aid companies who were 25 minutes or more away.
A local reporter queried the chief, asking, “would it make sense to have them (the city) as backup?” With little more than a second of thought, the chief replied, “It coulda, but again, would they have called us? No.”
I’ve coined this “WLW mutual aid,” meaning Who Likes Who. At the time, I spoke with Pittsburgh Chief Darryl Jones, and I am aware today that there have been discussions between the city and the adjacent municipality about what it would take to resolve the issue at hand. The answer really is NOT that difficult; however, I fully recognize the myriad political obstacles that are typically thrown out there in fear of automatic-aid agreements.
Unfortunately, on Dec. 24, 2023, in the same county of Pennsylvania, an eerily (albeit predictably) similar scenario played out in the town of Donora. It appears that on-scene ICs used WLW mutual aid, bypassing multiple stations significantly closer than other units called to assist. The original house and two adjacent homes would burn that night, and two residents would die in the fire – a horrible holiday season for those families.
Doing the right thing really is NOT that difficult! Putting firefighters in a position that gambles with people’s lives and properties should be criminal for any fire chief. For life-and-death situations, the closest appropriate unit response must be the expectation. No question.
Now, let’s flip the discussion to a situation where a “big city” department responded to a fire outside the city lines but where they were the closest units. This is what happened on Jan. 1, when Detroit firefighters responded a fire in Highland Park. The information available suggests the Detroit crews saw smoke and decided to go in. The Detroit Fire Department is now facing scrutiny, accused of packing up and leaving an incident mid-operation after other crews arrived on scene. It’s not clear whether a mutual-aid agreement of any kind exists between these jurisdictions – time and more investigation will tell.
I know these situations well, having worked the Southern Avenue border with Washington, D.C., for many years. The lack of automatic aid with the DCFEMS mutual-aid policies continues to this day to be a travesty for the public, although let’s stayed focused on Detroit today.
Put yourself in your crewmembers’ shoes: They see smoke, they respond out of the district arriving first at a medium-size apartment building on fire. People are reported trapped, and your crews not only initiate an aggressive interior attack, but also searched to ensure that everyone was out of the building. (New reporting indicates a dispute over the nature of the rescue efforts, with Detroit officials hailing firefighters for rescuing occupants and some occupants saying they evacuated themselves.)
Now imagine you’re the chief: You pull up and engage on the radio with your firefighters. Your members are inside fighting the fire. You recognize this incident is outside of your municipal boundaries, possibly with statutory issues to consider. What do you do?
As we contemplate answers to this part of the puzzle, I’ll reiterate that the only credible information we have at the moment are media interviews with the Highland Park fire chief and the Detroit union official. Regardless, the bottom line is that the concepts rooted in the National Incident Management System and the Incident Command System are the blueprint of what you should do.
On-scene chiefs need to collaborate on any transitions between firefighting forces. Although the on-scene Detroit chief is heard on the radio directing his crews to exit the building, there is no indication whether there was any coordination with any other on-scene chiefs. The Detroit crews left the building, packed up and left. Highland Park Fire Chief Erik Hollowell indicates that at the point Detroit crews pulled out, “there’s no water going on that fire.” The building continued to burn and became a total loss. Hollowell called the situation “pure negligence.”
How did we go from everything going so right (fire extinguishment, maybe even rescues) to everything going so wrong? Was this a WLW mutual-aid battle?
I certainly don’t have the answers to those two questions, but as the situation is described, the outcome is just as much a debacle as the situation in Washington County, Pennsylvania. We are EMERGENCY SERVICE agencies, providing emergency response. When Grandma Jones calls 911, she doesn’t care where you come from. She cares that you show up at the right time, and the right place, with the right people and equipment to do the right things – that’s doing ALL of the right things, not just the ones that will get you that medal.
The news anchor summed up the public sentiment to this nonsense: “Such an unusual story.” Yes, unusual to the public at large but actually part of a pervasive fire service culture problem. We must address this sooner than later.