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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Why Automatic Aid is Not the Only Answer

For fire/ems departments struggling to handle increased call volumes and growth of their communities beyond their effective response areas Automatic Aid Agreements with adjacent departments are an often implemented solution.  Columbus and other departments in Central Ohio have been leading innovators of this type of effort, starting in the 1970s.
Ideally, these agreements result in the “nearest unit”, regardless of jurisdictional boundary, responding to an emergency. They are in place over the United States in various forms.  Beyond Columbus, prime examples include the Washington DC area; California and parts of Florida.  On the surface, this is an excellent idea.  Having the nearest appropriate resources respond to a fire or medical emergency is would seem to be common sense.  But, as with many things, there are challenges that must be addressed if Automatic Aid Solutions are to be truly effective.
Challenge 1: Dispatch Delay
The first area in which automatic aid encounters difficulty is in dispatching.  For many agencies, the dispatcher processes and dispatches the run and the surrounding areas must monitor each other’s radio dispatch channels for responses and then dispatch their own units on the mutual aid call.  This builds into the response a delay that can be significant and sometimes excessive.  Remember, for the most critical calls: Time = Life/Property, however, automatic aid can make even mediocre response time goals very difficult to meet. 
For example: 
A 911 call is received by the Police department.  Initial screening determines the need for EMS and the call is conferenced to the fire dispatch call-taker.  The fire-call-taker processes the run and releases it to a dispatcher that reviews the run and assign the unit(s) to respond. The run is then read over the air for the units that are assigned.  In the case of automatic aid, another dispatcher has to listen to this channel, then input the run into their own CAD, assign a unit, and dispatch the unit on the mutual aid run. 
The total time from receipt of the call at the agency of jurisdiction to the dispatch of the mutual aid unit (best case) is several minutes.
For those departments that are only aware of each other’s runs by radio dispatch, this process may also include a delay if there is a backlog of runs to be dispatched.  Further, the mutual aid response is often for responses that are already a distance away, therefore any time delaying the dispatch message only increases further the response time.
In order to overcome this challenge, the departments of Northern Virginia have developed and implemented a CAD connectivity solution that allows each department to DIRECTLY dispatch the mutual aid partner.  This allows immediate dispatching, and the run only has to be handled
This also allows each department real time status monitoring of other partner agencies, which helps to solve challenge Number 2:
Challenge Two:  Status of Mutual Aid Units
When relying on mutual aid units, it is a significant challenge for the requesting agency to know if the automatic aid unit that they wish to dispatch on a call is actually available.  The worst case scenario is that the already cumbersome process described above, with its potential delay, results not in the automatic aid unit being assigned, but, rather, the requesting agency finding out the mutual aid unit is on its own call and must be replaced, thereby necessitating a further unit to be assigned and a further delay in response time. 
Short of a CAD linkage solution where each automatic aid department operates from a shared unit table that tracks availability (or, even better, one dispatching and alerting program), a low tech solution is for mutual aid units to advise the most common partner that requests them that they are tied up.  This works best for lower volume mutual aid environments.  For busier agencies, there are very few, if any, effective solutions that do not require technology to be implemented that can permit a more effective dispatching effort that seamlessly takes into account the status of mutual aid units and eliminates the delay in their assignment.
Challenge Three:        If you have it, why should I?
Especially in these times of tight budgets, many fire departments are becoming overly reliant on Mutual Aid partners to take calls that they should be able to handle more consistently on their own.  No one can find fault with a few border areas that perhaps a mutual aid partner is closer to being distant from that jurisdiction’s nearest firehouse.   Or, at the other end of the spectrum, a joint management and development effort towards emergency services that takes a regional view and builds firehouses and adds resources appropriately.  Both are reasonable approaches to emergency services. 
But, in this time of recession, no department should overly rely on another.  Communities want to know that they are getting something for their tax dollars spent on firehouses, ambulances, and very expensive fire apparatus.  The knowledge that a department takes thousands of runs for a neighbor unwilling to provide a required level of protection for their own community certainly would not be welcomed by many concerned citizens.  Further, in these cases, the resources they pay tax dollars to fund are often unavailable for runs in their own community—a tricky situation when you ask for new tax dollars and the community cannot see the value.         
Departments must leverage their mutual aid availability towards one of two outcomes—regional approaches to emergency services that also have in place some type of funding element—so departments are not left picking up the bill for picking up other department’s slack.  Or, departments must develop new ways of sharing resources and ensuring that every department is working towards meeting minimum standards of service, such as those developed by the NFPA.
 The bitter irony in areas such as Columbus, Ohio, is that the city annexes land for development and tax revenue, but is often unable to effectively serve the area it annexes.  In the end, the township or suburban departments still respond to calls in the area of new development (due to a lack of an adequate number of new firehouses) but the suburban departments receive no funding to provide the service.  Although hardly fair, this arrangement has existed for years and will only get worse as the suburban portions of the city (due to urban sprawl) experience increasing numbers of fire/ems calls for service.
Overall Solution:
Clearly, the time has come in many areas for a more regional approach to the delivery of fire and EMS services, one that leverages the best of mutual aid principles, while ensuring that taxpayers are getting what they pay for and national standards for response time, coverage, and amount of resources are being met. 
The first step towards this approach, and one that addresses many of the inherent challenges of relying on mutual aid to meet everyday response needs, is to regionalize emergency service communications.  This permits better resource management, effective dispatching of units from multiple agencies, and better command and control.  Given the technology available in today’s public safety communications industry, this type of approach does not have to require millions of dollars in new facilities and new agencies to run them.  Virtual consolidation, next generation CAD systems, and radio systems permit a far greater degree of coordination and cooperation than was ever possible before.  Additionally, these types of efforts can help save lives by reducing response times and streamlining the dispatching process.
Whether new technology is the only solution or the first step in a dynamic evolution of emergency services in a given area, it is without question that the political, economic, and safety realities of many communities require a serious examination of how things are done and how they can improve.  As mutual aid dependent agencies become busier and busier, the impact of these challenges will only increase.  Whatever solutions are implemented, there must be an understanding of the challenges that are present and serious effort to find whatever solutions will work for the local emergency service agencies and the public they are tasked to serve—starting with those whose tax dollars they are provided in exchange for being there when they are needed. 

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