Fire fighting is one of the world's most honored but hazardous occupations. It is the duty of every fire department to save lives and reduce injuries and property losses. Firefighters perform no greater service than by going to the aid of others.
Whenever there is a disaster, the fire department is one of the first agencies called to the scene. The emergency situation does not always involve fire. It may involve cave-ins, building collapses, auto accidents, aircraft crashes, natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes, hazardous materials incidents, civil disturbances, explosions, water emergencies and medical incidents. The list of potential emergencies is unlimited.
Because of budget constraints and shrinking numbers of available personnel, many fire departments are finding that mutual aid is the only effective means available to properly provide the emergency services expected by their communities. The ideal fire fighter would be properly trained and equipped to deal with any type of emergency situation but this is seldom the case.
Because of the widely varied nature of the possible emergencies fire fighters are expected to deal with, it is very conceivable that a fire fighter's entire career could be spent in training instead of responding and assisting the public.
For example, federally mandated hazardous materials training can require several hundred hours of training to become certified as a hazardous materials specialist. Emergency medical training can take anywhere from 40 hours to 1600 hours depending upon the level of care provided to the public. Rescue training for water, high angle, confined space, structural collapse, auto extrication, cave-ins, etc. can take over 100 hours each to become proficient in the required skills and techniques. Fire fighting techniques require thousands of hours of training to become skilled and knowledgeable.
Fire fighters also have to be trained to inspect buildings for fire and safety hazards, understand building and fire codes, and recognize the signs of incendiary fires and be able to collect and preserve the evidence of those fires. They must be public speakers and educators to be able to pass along fire safety information to children, to school officials, to hospital and nursing home personnel and to the general public they are sworn to protect.
All of the skills listed above also require annual refresher training to maintain proficiency. To be able to meet the needs of the public, many agencies rely heavily on mutual aid from other organizations to provide the necessary personnel and some of the specialized techniques required at these incidents. It is very seldom that one department can "do it all".
History of Mutual Aid
In 1679, the city of Boston established America's first fire department. After the revolutionary war, the volunteer fire fighter idea spread throughout the country. Mutual aid followed soon afterwards when regular major conflagrations overwhelmed the capabilities of local fire departments.
Feelings of exhilaration and self-satisfaction over serving one's community and doing a worthwhile job well was the fire fighter's only reward. Many famous Americans have served their communities as fire fighters; George Washington, John Hancock, Alexander Hamilton, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere all were volunteer fire fighters in their day.
In the early 1700's, private businesses and industries began forming their own rudimentary fire brigades made up of their own workers to better protect their facilities. Mutual aid was occasionally requested from neighboring facilities and fire departments but no formalized system came into widespread usage until the beginning of World War II.
The Baton Rouge Area Mutual Aid System or BRAMAS is claimed to be the first area wide mutual aid system in the United States. It was formed in 1944 by the Baton Rouge Fire Department and local industrial facilities safety personnel. Its original emphasis was civil defense preparedness during World War II but it has since expanded to include fires, explosions, gas releases, power failures, forces of nature, etc.
As stated under the "Purpose of the Organization" section from the BRAMAS mutual aid agreement:
"The purpose of the Baton Rouge Mutual Aid System is to develop, maintain and improve procedures among the members for mutual assistance and cooperation in the control of emergencies and disasters such as fires, spills explosions, releases of toxic substances, etc. The procedures will involve the making available by one or more members of BRAMAS to the member affected by such emergency or to designated government agencies or third parties, that material and equipment, and where specified, personnel, at the disposal of the members of BRAMAS necessary for the containment of and clean-up of the emergency."
As stated under the "Areas of Interest" section, the areas of interest encompass two basic objectives:
- To assist in the prevention of disasters.
- To help minimize the effects of major incidents should they occur.
These objectives are accomplished by:
- Establishing a coordinated and practical long range plan for handling emergencies.
- Encouraging cooperation between the private sector and government agencies.
- Improving techniques and facilities for emergency control by applying available rescources more effectively.
BRAMAS's 92 member organizations are industries of all types, federal government agencies, state, parish and local government agencies and volunteer organizations. It covers an eight (8) parish area (counties in states outside of Louisiana).
BRAMAS is not designed to be an emergency response organization. It is a banding together of neighboring industries and governmental agencies for the express purpose of assisting each other with equipment at the scene of major emergencies.
Member agencies that call for assistance retain responsibility for handling their own emergencies. Each member organization appoints a representative of that organization. The representatives elect a chairman and executive committee to supervise the operations of the system.
BRAMAS representatives meet monthly to review incidences, exchange information in a networking format, host speakers on subjects pertaining to emergency response and control and discuss system improvements.
When BRAMAS first formed in 1944, there was no formal agreement for response by the agencies involved. Now, a formal mutual aid agreement must be signed by each member organization, the current agreement addresses indemnification.
The system is triggered only upon request by a member organization. Each member organization is responsible for setting up a chain-of-command on each shift that has the authority to (1) call for mutual aid assistance or (2) provide assistance if requested. Communications are triggered through the Baton Rouge Fire Department's dispatch center. The dispatch center maintains a system of telephones, radios, computer and card files of member resources and is manned 24 hours per day.
The BRAMAS system for several years has offered low cost or free training programs to its members as well as regularly scheduled disaster drills in a constant attempt to improve the response capabilities of all members of the system.
Michael Dunn is the President of Emergency Response Training, Inc., a Baton Rouge, LA. based fire/rescue training consulting company. He was a state industrial firefighting and rescue instructor for 15+ years and has been actively involved in the fire service for 28 years. He received an Associate's Degree in Fire Protection Technology from Oklahoma State University. Dunn is on several national and international committees that are developing standards and textbooks for rescue and emergency response, including those of the International Fire Service Training Association, The American Society for Testing and Materials, and the International Association of Dive Rescue Specialists.