Mutual Aid Preparedness

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?

© 2022 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Preparing for Disaster Deployments

I wrote last year about my trepidation over Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) being considered as a deployable resource. The problem is that even most professionally trained emergency personnel aren’t prepared for deployment. We need to do better.

One of the key aspects of a disaster is that it overwhelms local resources. This often requires help from outside the impacted jurisdiction(s). Working outward from the center, like the bullseye of a dartboard, we are usually able to get near-immediate assistance from our neighbors (aka mutual aid), with additional assistance from those at greater distances. When I use the word ‘deployment’, I’m referring to the movement of resources from well outside the area and usually for a period of time of several days or longer.

The US and other places around the world have great mutual aid systems, many supported by laws and administrative procedures, identifying how requests are made, discerning the liability for the requesting organization and the fulfilling organization(s), and more. Most of these are intended for response vs deployment, but may have the flexibility to be applicable to deployment. Some, such as the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) are specifically written for deployments. While all this is certainly important, most organizations haven’t spent the time to prepare their people for deployment, which is a need that many organizations seem to take for granted. Those organizations which are, practically be definition, resources which are designed to deploy, such as Type 1 and 2 incident management teams (IMTs), often have at least some preparations in place and can be a good resource from which others can learn.

What goes into preparing for deployment? First, the sponsoring organization needs to recognize that their resources might be requested for deployment and agree to take part in this. That said, some organizations, such as volunteer fire departments, might have little control over their personnel deploying across the country when a call for help goes out publicly. These types of requests, in my opinion, can be harmful as large numbers of well-intentioned people may abandon their home organization to a lack of even basic response resources – but this is really a topic to be explored separately.

Once an organization has made a commitment to consider future requests, leadership needs to develop a policy and procedure on how they will review and approve requests. Will requests only be accepted from certain organizations? What are the acceptable parameters of a request for consideration? What are the thresholds for resources which must be kept at home? 

Supporting much of this decision making is the typing of resources. In the US, this is often done in accordance with defined typing from FEMA. Resource typing, fundamentally, helps us to identify the capabilities, qualifications, and eligibility of our resources. This is good not only for your own internal tracking, but is vitally important to most deployment requests. Organizations should do the work now to type their resources and personnel.

If an organization’s leadership decides they are willing to support a request, there then needs to be a canvass and determination of interest to deploy personnel. This is yet another procedure and the one that has most of my focus in this article. Personnel must be advised of exactly what they are getting into and what is expected of them (Each resource request received should give information specific to the deployment, such as deployment duration, lodging conditions, and duties.). The organization may also determine a need to deny someone the ability to deploy based on critical need with the home organization or other reasons, and having a policy already established for this makes the decision easier to communicate and defend.

These organization-level policies and procedures, along with staff-level training and policies should be developed to support the personnel in their decision and their readiness for an effective deployment.

Many things that should be determined and addressed would include:

  • Matters of pay, expenses, and insurance
  • Liability of personal actions
  • Code of conduct
  • What personnel are expected to provide vs what the organization will provide (equipment, supplies, uniform, etc.)
  • Physical fitness requirements and inoculations
  • Accountability to the home organization

Personnel also need to be prepared to work in austere conditions. They may not have a hotel room; instead they could be sleeping on a cot, a floor, or in a tent. This alone can break certain people, physically and psychologically. Access to showers and even restrooms might be limited. Days will be long, the times of day they work may not be what they are used to, and they will be away from home. They must be ready, willing, and able to be away from their lives – their families, pets, homes, jobs, routines, and comforts – for the duration of the deployment. Their deployment activity can subject them to physical and psychological stresses they must be prepared for. These are all things that personnel must take into consideration if they choose to be on a deployment roster.

This is stuff not taught in police academies, fire academies, or nursing schools. FEMA, the Red Cross, and other organizations have policy, procedures, training, and other resources available for their personnel because this is part of their mission and they make these deployments regularly. The big problem comes from personnel with organizations which don’t do this as part of their core mission. People who are well intentioned, even highly trained and skilled in what they do, but simply aren’t prepared for the terms and conditions of deployment can become a liability to the response and to themselves.

Of course, organizational policy and procedure continues from here in regard to their methods for actually approving, briefing, and deploying personnel; accounting for them during the deployment; and processing their return home. The conditions of their deployment may necessitate follow up physical and mental health evaluations (and care, as needed) upon their return. They should also be prepared to formally present lessons learned to the organization’s leadership and their peers.

I’ll say that any organization interested in the potential of deploying personnel during a disaster is responsible for making these preparations, but a broader standard can go a long way in this effort. I’d suggest that guidance should be established at the state level, by state emergency management agencies and their peers, such as state fire administrators; state departments of health, transportation, criminal justice, and others. These state agencies often contribute to and are even signatories of state-wide mutual aid plans which apply to the constituents of their areas of practice. Guidance developed at the state level should also dovetail into EMAC, as it’s states that are the signatories to these agreements and often rely on the resources of local organizations when requests are received.

There is clearly a lot to consider for organizations and individuals in regard to disaster deployments. It’s something often taken for granted, with the assumption that any responder can be sent to a location hundreds of miles away and be fully prepared to live and function in that environment. We can do better and we owe our people better.

Has your organization developed policies, procedures, and training for deploying personnel?

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®