To the rescue
Sirens sounded, warning the residents of Utica, Ill., that a tornado was approaching. As they had many times before, 30 residents of the rural western Illinois community gathered in the Milestone, a sturdy, 100-year-old tavern in the city’s downtown center. But, this time, the building would not hold.
The tremendous force of the tornado threw a vehicle into the first floor, which collapsed into the basement, trapping all who had sought refuge. On that evening in April 2004, the local first responders knew they needed help. They turned to MABAS, the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System.
Within an hour, search and rescue crews from around the state began working through the night, digging through the rubble rock by rock. A dozen victims were rescued, and eight bodies were recovered within hours. Even veteran first responders from major cities were impressed with the cooperative rescue efforts. “They had never seen a response like this before,” recounts Jay Reardon, MABAS’ first chief executive officer. “It was immediate, great and effective.”
While MABAS has been engaged in mutual support during disasters for 40 years, it is not alone in its ability to send aid to critical situations. In Illinois, for example, the state’s own emergency management system can send additional resources, from law enforcement to public works, to a disaster. In the direst of situations, Illinois can request help from states around the nation, through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), a congressionally ratified program to organize interstate cooperation. EMAC is under the jurisdiction of the Lexington, Ky.-based National Emergency Management Association and funded by Federal Emergency Management Agency grants. “All the systems link together nicely,” Reardon says. “There are no excuses anymore. We have to get the job done. Everyone has to pull the rope together. The rules of the past no longer apply.”
Katrina pushes management
Ever since the nation watched the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the focus on emergency management has intensified at every government level. While not criticizing the local governments in Louisiana, officials elsewhere point to their own longstanding planning to meet disasters and their cooperation agreements to get the right resources quickly to the scene. In fact, they cite the massive response of other states to the Gulf Coast in the immediate aftermath as an example of the network’s success.
Yet, at every layer of the system, leaders point to the complexity of the management issues and the planning that must take place before an incident. More and more, the cooperation is drawing from a broader range of resources, calling on law enforcement, public works, water and wastewater, and even animal rescue professionals, in addition to the expected fire and rescue.
Before the responders can be employed at the scene, countless details must be handled: What happens if someone is hurt? What happens if equipment is damaged? Who will handle the command and coordination? How much will the providers be reimbursed?
Without proper planning, the additional support can hinder more than help. Firefighters could go to the wrong places, people who need to sleep could not have facilities to accommodate them, and police officers out of their jurisdiction could not have arrest powers.
Leaders of the mutual aid programs say it is critical to resolve those issues before the crisis so responders can focus on saving property and lives. “Troops win battles. Logistics win wars,” says Jerry Rhodes, chief of the Cunningham Fire Protection District, outside Denver Colo., and chair of the Emergency Management Committee of the Fairfax, Va.-based International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).
Rhodes and others point to the first moments of a crisis as the key to securing the right assistance. It’s essential to identify how many and what kind of personnel are needed, what equipment will be required and for how long. Then, the mutual aid systems must determine what resources are available to help. And, management of the assistance on the scene is essential. “If we don’t have it right,” Reardon says, “we can cause a nightmare on the incident scene.”
Early mutual aid systems
MABAS, one of the oldest mutual aid systems, began to form in 1968, when local departments in rural areas of Illinois and along the Illinois and Wisconsin border raced from one jurisdiction to another during significant emergencies. They formed a mutual aid pact that facilitated the easy exchange of support.
By the early 1990s, the cooperation agreement was only adopted by 13 of the 225 suburban fire departments north of Chicago. However, after the Oklahoma City bombing, Illinois’ governor asked MABAS, the largest state organization of its kind, to become the central point of contact for state emergencies. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the organization has burgeoned and now includes more than 1,300 member agencies in Illinois.
At the same time, Illinois and neighboring states around the Great Lakes adopted similar mutual aid agreements and began coordinating their own intrastate plans, which greatly expanded the capacity to assist during emergencies. By 2007, the states had formed the Mid-America Mutual Aid Consortium, which includes all the Great Lakes states, Iowa and Missouri. “It allows us to move across state borders and work together,” Reardon says. “We don’t want to wind up with six systems. We are working to gather information, so we know what each state has on its books, and to identify any obstacles.”
Though MABAS works primarily within each state, with a network extending among contiguous states, it can assist nationally as well, as shown by its response to Hurricane Katrina, Reardon says. He notes that Louisiana sent out a request for 596 firefighters and 120 vehicles, and Illinois sent the personnel and the equipment within 72 hours. Ultimately, the mission expanded to a six-week assignment, involving 900 personnel and 200 vehicles that rotated every two weeks.
The Resources Ordering Status System (ROSS), the mutual aid group that evolved in the Western states, is slightly different from MABAS because it plans more for wildfires than the home and business emergencies more common in Eastern urban areas. Also, ROSS’s command center first identifies the needed resources and their costs at the emergency site and then deploys them as efficiently as possible. While mutual aid systems like MABAS stand ready to send in their teams if called upon, ROSS acts more like a clearinghouse database that field workers can tap into. “In situations like wildfires that are battled over time, efficiency is important,” Rhodes says. “It’s important to follow the dollar flow.” He also points out that fires on federally owned land are handled by federal resources, so a strong level of cooperation is essential.
Rhodes also encourages fire chiefs to engage in broad-based disaster planning. Through his work on the IAFC Emergency Management Committee, Rhodes is building models for emergency response that can be used throughout North America and reproduced in other areas around the world. He says the protocols can be summarized simply as “how to be a good host and a good guest.” The goal is to build alliances by educating first responders and officials at every level. “We want fire services to work with emergency managers,” Rhodes says.
A goal of broadening the alliance is to coordinate better with the law enforcement community, according to Dwight Henninger, Vail, Colo., police chief. Henninger is the representative of the Alexandria, Va.-based International Association of Chiefs of Police on IAFC’s Emergency Management Committee. “We’ve shown there is a need to move people, and there is more understanding about the need for mutual aid,” he says. But, he notes that establishing the rules for cooperation is complicated. “Fire folks are more used to moving resources across boundaries,” Henninger says. “But with Katrina and other events, there’s more awareness of the need for police presence from other communities on large emergency scenes.”
Laws governing police powers vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and state to state. “We have to establish how we provide the officers the powers to be a good cop,” Henninger says. Such crucial questions have stopped intercommunity cooperation in the past, he says. “Police powers are more complicated than crossing jurisdictions to put out fires. Police have to have the powers to arrest and shoot weapons.”
In addition, police are becoming more aware of a need to participate in coordinated command and control at emergency scenes. In the past, each response team — firefighters, law enforcement, public works and public health — often had established their own control centers. “We need to work together to form a unified command,” he says.
Spurred by Hurricane Andrew’s devastation in Florida in the early 1990s, EMAC has worked to coordinate interstate emergency response. The compact started as cooperation between Southern states and has evolved into a national interstate network.
While mutual aid agreements like MABAS work with local government units, EMAC aims at the state level, says Angela Copple, who heads EMAC’s staff. Once the local agencies ask the governor to declare an emergency and the state agency determines that out-of-state assistance is required, EMAC is contacted. “We determine the best fit to get the resource filled,” she says. “In general, EMAC is less costly than federal support. States are willing to help one another with their own resources.”
For example, she says that in Katrina’s aftermath, Iowa assisted Louisiana with newborn screening. With their hospital systems under extreme stress, Louisiana sent blood samples to Iowa to ensure that newborns were not overlooked amidst the chaos. Other assistance can be less dramatic, she says. In the recent tornados in Tennessee, she noted that North Carolina helped coordinate donations.
Like the other mutual agreements, EMAC’s protocols covering payment and liabilities are established well in advance, so assistance becomes the immediate priority rather than ironing out details. “It’s easier to get on the road, out the door, if it’s all taken care of ahead of time,” Copple says. After the mission is completed, the assisting state simply sends a reimbursement request to receive a check.
Still, with all the attention devoted to mutual assistance and disaster planning, the money for building the systems remain “very tight,” Copple says. “We really operate on a shoestring budget.”
In 2004, FEMA gave EMAC $2.1 million, and last year, it received an additional $1.5 million grant, Copple says. The organization is working to become part of the federal budget rather than relying on grants. “It impacts our ability to help,” she says. “We would like to expand our services. But, for that, we need consistent funding.”
Robert Barkin is a Bethesda, Md.-based freelance writer.