Mutual aid is a great resource. We get help from our neighbors, or even those beyond our neighbors, providing additional numbers, capabilities, or support to aid our response to incidents and disasters. Mutual aid is mentioned in practically every emergency operations plan I’ve read, yet it’s clearly taken for granted. Most jurisdictions simply don’t have a plan for mutual aid, and most that do have a rather poor plan.
The fire service is by far the most frequent user of mutual aid. Most fire service mutual aid is for short-duration incidents, meaning that they’ve only scratched the surface in mutual aid management issues. Most fire departments don’t have their own mutual aid plans in place, instead relying on a county-based or regional plan. These also vary rather wildly in content and quality. It’s largely fine to use and be part of a county or regional plan, so long as SOMEONE is responsible for implementing the plan and all participants are familiar with it. Given issues of liability, there should also be a mutual aid agreement to which members are signatories consenting to the terms and conditions of the agreement as implemented by the plan.
The best mutual aid practitioners I’ve had experience with are utility companies, especially electric utilities. Be it hurricanes, winter storms, wildfires, or other hazards, most electric utility infrastructure is highly vulnerable to physical disruption. Even if not involved in managing or responding to an incident, we’ve all seen out-of-state utilities responding to our own areas for a major disruption, or utility trucks on the highway headed elsewhere toward a disruption. Utilities have highly detailed plans, often of their own as well as being part of regional consortiums. Those regional consortiums are then part of national-level mobilization plans. While the response details of the incident will change based on each deployment, the managers of every deployment know what to expect in terms of business operations. More strictly in the emergency management world, only the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), used for inter-state mutual aid, is as thorough and well-used on such a large scale.
The foundation of mutual aid, regardless of duration or resources shared, is a written agreement. This is something that emergency managers and first responders have been beaten over the head with for years, yet so few actually have written agreements in place. There is no downside to having written agreements. While they may be combined into a single document, agreements and plans really should be different documents, as they have entirely different purposes. Agreements are attestations to the terms and conditions, but plans describe the means and methods. The provisions in a plan, however, may be the basis for the agreement. FEMA provides the NIMS Guideline for Mutual Aid that identifies all the necessary elements of a mutual aid agreement (and plan). The development of a mutual aid plan, just like any other emergency operations plan, should utilize FEMA’s CPG 101: Developing and Maintaining Emergency Operations Plans to guide development. Yes, many FEMA preparedness documents are actually complimentary!
So what about mutual aid planning is so important? Consider that you are having a really big pot-luck party, with hundreds of people invited. Everyone wants details of course: when should they arrive, where should they go, where should they park, how long will the party run? What food should they bring? Is there storage for cold food? How about frozen food? Are there food allergies? Is there alcohol? Are kids welcome? Will there be activities? Can I show up late? Can I show up early? What if I have to leave early? What’s the best way to get there? Are there any hotels in the area? Can I set up a tent or a camper? Can I bring my dogs? What if the weather is bad? You get the point. While most of these questions aren’t the types of questions you will get in a mutual aid operation, some actually are likely, and there will be even more! These kinds of questions are fine and manageable when it’s a few people, but when there are hundreds, it feels like asking for help is an entirely different incident to manage – that’s because it is! Of course, good planning, training, and exercises can help address a lot of this.
Mutual aid plans should address receiving AND sending mutual aid. There are dozens if not hundreds of bad stories coming from incidents like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and other benchmark incidents that involve poor mutual aid management – on the part of the receivers as well as those providing resources. Every agency should have policies and procedures in place about responding to mutual aid requests. There were numerous departments on 9/11 that were left non-operational because personnel responded to NYC, Shanksville, or the Pentagon, taking so many resources with them that it crippled their home department’s ability to respond. I wrote about deployment issues back in 2021.
Who will be responsible for receiving dozens or hundreds of resources if you ask for them? I’m not just talking about appointing a Staging Area Manager (something else we do VERY poorly in public safety), but is your organization prepared to receive, support, and manage all these resources? If you expect the operation to be longer than several hours, you may need to consider lodging. How about food and water? Supplies? Specialized equipment? Will you be ready to assign them, or will they languish in a Staging Area for hours? If these aren’t volunteers, who is paying them? How will reimbursement for expenses work?
What if something breaks? What if someone gets hurt? These are important questions not only from the perspective of actions to be taken, but also liability. How will you handle HR types of issues (substance abuse, harassment, etc.) involving mutual aid personnel? Are you prepared to provide these resources with critical incident stress debriefings?
How will mutual aid resources be accounted for and credentialed? What authorities, if any, will mutual aid resources have? What documentation will they be responsible for? How will you communicate with them? Do you have the essential ability to integrate them into your operations?
The bottom line is that if you invite someone to your party, you are responsible for them. It’s a matter of operational necessity, legal liability, professionalism, and respect.
What best practices have you seen when it comes to preparedness for and management of mutual aid resources?
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