When your house is on fire, you need emergency assistance immediately and you want the closest fire units to be dispatched to your address. But what if you live near the city boundary and the closest fire engine and ladder truck actually belong to another city? Or what if the fire engine from the station down the street is already on a call, who will respond to your house fire? Having the closest unit respond immediately to an emergency - regardless of jurisdictional boundaries - is the key. Thanks to the efforts of 12 Fire Chiefs in Southern California, the citizens in their cities now enjoy this type of coordinated assistance.
It began with a tri-city collaboration in 1979, when the cities of Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena agreed to operate as a borderless system for fire incidents dispatched by Verdugo Fire Communications Center. The success of this system later prompted the suggestion that all 11 of the cities in the local area should enter into a similar collaboration. The details were discussed at monthly Verdugo Task Force meetings, with input and direction from the Fire Chiefs, over a period of about two years. Effective February 14, 2005, this collaboration was christened Unified Response and expanded to cover 11 cities: Alhambra, Arcadia, Burbank, Glendale, Monrovia, Monterey Park, Pasadena, San Gabriel, San Marino, Sierra Madre and South Pasadena. Since then, the city of Montebello and the Bob Hope Airport have also joined.
Unified Response essentially merged dozens of automatic & mutual-aid agreements between the 11 fire departments into a single automatic aid agreement. This eliminated the time-consuming element inherent in mutual aid agreements, where permission to share resources is sought and obtained by Communications Center staff, before the units can be dispatched. When your house is on fire, an additional five-minute delay can mean the difference between moderate damage and a total loss. With an automatic aid agreement this type of permission is not required; the Communications Center immediately dispatches the closest available units and everyone works together to handle the incident.
The beauty of Unified Response is that it expands the amount and availability of personnel and equipment that fire departments can use daily for help, and without delay. Where one city might have three engines and a Battalion Chief to respond; under Unified Response, they have access to 46 engines, 13 trucks, 5 water tenders, and many other specialized units such as Hazmat and USAR equipment. The current plan also shares rescue ambulances on an automatic basis with only a portion of the cities, but that could change in the future. This sharing of specialized apparatus among multiple cities is a prime example of agency cooperation. The collaboration has also been helpful in supporting requests for federal and state grant funding because of the larger multi-jurisdictional service area.
It is our hope that Unified Response will be the foundation for other joint opportunities, allowing us to leverage each other's strengths, resources and experience for mutual benefit.
History of Unified Response
Covering 12 Cities and Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport in OES Region I, Area C
Four years ago, Southern California experienced an unprecedented fire siegethat devastated nearly a million acres, destroyed thousands of structures and took human lives. It was a grave reminder that no municipality has sufficient resources to handle all types and severities of major emergencies on its own.
Fortunately, systems are in place at the state, region, county and local levels to provide assistance in the form of equipment and trained personnel when such major disasters occur.
At the state level, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES) coordinates disaster preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation activities. California's 58 counties are grouped into three OES administrative regions which are further subdivided into six mutual aid regions, I through VI, as shown in Figure 1. Each mutual aid region is comprised of several operational areas, which may include a number of local jurisdictions.
Region I covers five counties in Southern California, including Los Angeles County, which is further subdivided into Areas A, B, C, E, F and G, as shown in Figure 2.
Area C covers approximately 126 square miles of Los Angeles County and includes the cities of Alhambra, Arcadia, Burbank, Glendale, Monrovia, Monterey Park, Pasadena, San Gabriel, San Marino, Sierra Madre and South Pasadena (Figure 3).
Each of the 12 cities in Area C has its own fire department, and 12 of these cities share fire/rescue dispatch services provided by the Verdugo Fire Communications Center in Glendale. Alhambra expects to join the Verdugo dispatch system in the coming months. Verdugo Fire Communications is jointly owned by the cities of Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena and provides fire/rescue dispatch services to the other cities on a contract basis. A description of the benefits of this regional communication system is provided in Table 1.
There is tremendous variability in fire department resources available to each city. Many of the smaller cities lack the funding, equipment, personnel and other resources to handle a major incident, making them dependent on the goodwill of neighboring jurisdictions to assist during crises. For example, some cities have no ladder trucks and must rely on neighboring agencies to assist when such apparatus are needed. Others may lack an air utility, USAR, hazmat unit or water tender.
Assistance provided by other jurisdictions is often negotiated and formalized as mutual aid or automatic aid agreements. Mutual aid refers to assistance that may be requested after local resources have exceeded their capacity. It can include such personnel, equipment, material and supplies as are customarily used within the sending party's jurisdiction. In contrast, automatic aid requires no formal request for deployment. It usually involves certain units or types of units within a specified area or district; the appropriate units are automatically dispatched to an incident under circumstances detailed in the agreement.
Both types of agreements generally stipulate that none of the participating fire agencies, in rendering aid to another jurisdiction, will be obligated to reduce their own resources to the extent that a situation is created that might be detrimental to its citizens.Table 2 shows the primary front-line resources available within Area C.
There are currently over 40 aid agreements in place among and between Area C cities and the City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, involving mutual and/or automatic aid for fire, emergency medical, hazardous materials and rescue responses. A list of these agreements is provided in Appendix A.
In an emergency situation when time is of the essence and lives and property are at stake, there is not sufficient time to consult the finer points of multiple agreements to confirm which apparatus and personnel may be sent. Ideally, the closest units should automatically be dispatched to supply the necessary resources with a minimum of delay. Some agreements even stipulate that a Chief Officer's approval must be obtained before aid may be supplied, and this too can result in unfortunate delays.
Over the years, some gaps in coverage have evolved and situations are arising with increasing frequency that require a "dispatch first, ask forgiveness later" approach. A simpler, more comprehensive plan was needed.
After extensive discussions among the 11 fire departments of Area C, a solution was formulated involving the creation of a borderless fire response area where boundaries between the 11 cities would be dropped and Verdugo Fire Communications would dispatch the closest appropriate emergency equipment, regardless of its affiliation or where the fire occurs. This solution does not include provision of emergency medical services; existing interagency agreements for medical responses remain in effect.
A system of "key stations" was developed by identifying 20 strategically placed fire stations that, if staffed and equipped during a major disaster, would still provide sufficient coverage for the entire geographic area under most circumstances. In Figure 4, a circle with a 1.5-mile radius surrounds each key station to show the immediate response area. Those areas that occur between circles are generally very lightly populated or unpopulated.
During a major incident with maximum draw-down of area resources, most or all of the key stations would remain staffed to respond to any other incidents that occur in the area. If at that point additional resources are needed for the major incident, mutual aid will be sought at the region or state level.
A deployment plan covering 32 types of fire incidents was agreed upon initially by the 11 participating fire agencies, indicating the number of engines, trucks, rescue ambulances and Battalion Chiefs that should be dispatched when these types of incidents occurred anywhere within Area C, as shown in Table 3. Note that this applied to first-alarm incidents only, and that following the six-month trial of Unified Response the list of incident types covered by this "send the closest unit" model expanded to cover virtually all non-medical incidents within the 11 cities.
When a large fire occurs and additional equipment and personnel are required, more are added in increments known as "alarms." For example, if 3 engines, 2 trucks, 1 rescue ambulance and 1 Battalion Chief are normally dispatched to a garage fire, twice as many of each might be sent to a second-alarm garage fire. The Battalion Chief in charge, known as the Incident Commander, makes the determination whether and when to request a multiple alarm. Alternatively, equipment is sometimes ordered piece by piece when it does not appear another full alarm assignment is required.
The following tables show how additional equipment is added incrementally as a single alarm progresses to multiple alarm levels, as well as the number of units remaining available to respond to other incidents within Area C. The structure fire scenario would include house, apartment and garage fires, as well as all other structures.
|1st Alarm||2nd Alarm||3rd Alarm||4th Alarm||5th Alarm||6th Alarm||7th Alarm|
|Air Utilities||0||1||As Needed/Requested|
|Rescue Amb||1||As Needed/Requested|
|1st Alarm||2nd Alarm||3rd Alarm||4th Alarm||5th Alarm||6th Alarm||7th Alarm|
|Air Utilities||As Needed/Requested|
|Rescue Amb.||As Needed/Requested|
In the past few years there have only been three fires that exceeded third-alarm status within Area C. All were brush fires that reached the fourth-alarm level. Under the proposed agreement, even with 20 engines committed to a major brush fire, another 20 engines would remain available for other Area C incidents and many of them would most likely be deployed at key stations to minimize response time regardless of where additional incidents might occur.
Reciprocity is the key to successful aid agreements. When a multiple-alarm incident exceeds the capacity of the home jurisdiction's resources, the closest available units must be sent to assist, either in compliance with existing aid agreements or as dictated by the closest available equipment. The jurisdiction receiving the assistance then supplies personnel and equipment when another agency needs help.
Within the 10 cities sharing Verdugo's dispatch services, there are about 34 major fire incidents per year, on average, as shown in Table 4 (major fires are those with multiple-alarm status and/or resulting in at least $100,000 damage and/or loss of human life). There are only about 16 multiple-alarm incidents per year in the area covered by these cities just over one per month so the probability of a particular engine or truck company participating in more than one major incident per month is relatively small.
It is also important to note that each instance of automatic aid provided under this proposal would be of brief duration, at most a few hours. When an extreme incident occurs such as a fourth-alarm brush fire, off-duty personnel from the affected jurisdiction are recalled to duty and reserve apparatus are deployed so the fire companies from other agencies that initially responded to the incident may return to their cities and fire stations as quickly as possible.
During non-rush-hour traffic, a seemingly distant fire station might be able to supply the fastest response to some incidents via freeway. The following map shows freeways within and around Area C. Note that there may be times when Burbank or Glendale fire stations might be able to respond rapidly to cities as distant as Monterey Park and Monrovia using the freeway system.
Uniform Coverage: Preventing "Gaps"
When a fire incident occurs, time is of the essence, so available units closest to the incident will be sent first, no matter which city the incident is in or which fire agency the units are from. This may create a gap in coverage around the incident as nearby stations are vacated to respond. Units from other fire stations nearby may be moved up to cover key stations around the incident, with priority given to covering an agency's stations with its own units and personnel whenever possible. For example, if Arcadia's only key station (105) is vacated to respond to an incident, personnel and apparatus from Arcadia Fire Station 107 might be asked to move up to Station 105 if they are available.
When an Incident Commander requires additional units, for example if the incident progresses to second-alarm status, those units that can arrive soonest will be dispatched first, even if they are already on move-up status from another city, manning a station near the incident. Verdugo will immediately dispatch additional units from non-key stations in nearby cities to cover any vacated key stations. This will be greatly facilitated by the upcoming addition of mapping and Automatic Vehicle Location capabilities to Verdugo's computer-aided dispatch system because it will provide an ongoing visual record of unit locations relative to incident locations on a map.
When a third-alarm structure fire occurs, at least nine engines and four trucks are required. Units from as many different agencies as possible will be dispatched to cover vacated key stations to minimize the impact on any one agency. Companies at the key stations will then cover any other incidents that occur while a major incident is in progress. Units en route to a move-up would still be considered available if another incident arose near the unit's location. Verdugo would dispatch that unit to the new incident and identify a different unit for the move-up. Verdugo dispatchers have proven themselves adept at orchestrating such intricate and complex movements during rapidly changing multiple-incident scenarios, and the upcoming technology will minimize guesswork.
To illustrate, imagine a target of concentric circles where the bulls-eye is an active incident. Units in the circle closest to the bulls-eye are sent to respond because they can get to the incident soonest. Other units from the next larger circle might be sent to cover if a key station in the first circle was vacated by this dispatch. If the fire is elevated to the next level, more units will be needed. Again, available units closest to the bulls-eye will be dispatched and any key stations vacated will be staffed by move-ups from slightly more distant non-key stations. Elevation to third-alarm status will generally pull units from most of the Area C cities to minimize the impact on any one fire agency or city. Using freeways during non-rush-hour times will facilitate some movements, for example moving an engine from an Alhambra station to one in Burbank.
What circumstances will trigger move-ups of units and personnel to other fire stations? If it appears that responding units will be committed 30 minutes or longer and one or more key stations have been vacated, move-ups will be considered. The Fire Communications Shift Supervisor on duty will examine activity and coverage around the vacated stations and determine whether move-ups to key stations will be necessary or if sufficient coverage is already provided by the units at the next closest station. If the incident's alarm level is increased, move-ups will occur immediately to eliminate any gaps in coverage.
Area C Chief Officers attended an orientation session in August 2005 to discuss standards related to deployment of fire resources under various circumstances, with the goal of engendering a level of consistency between Incident Commanders from different agencies. Just as having too few apparatus and personnel on scene can be disastrous, having too many can lead to logistical complications and even danger to those involved. Having numerous engines and trucks available is not sufficient reason to deploy them.
It is inevitable that there will be differences in standard operating procedures when multiple agencies collaborate on a major fire. Line personnel have been advised that direction from the Incident Commander is to be carried out to the best of their ability even if it is somewhat different from how operations are conducted in their own city.
The city of Sierra Madre covers approximately 3 square miles of the 126-mile area under discussion. As the only all-volunteer fire department in Los Angeles County, Sierra Madre Fire Department is not dispatched outside its jurisdiction to provide automatic aid when fires occur in nearby cities, but will provide mutual aid as requested. The other fire agencies may respond into Sierra Madre when additional resources are requested.
NFIRS reporting and incident record-keeping are the responsibility of each agency in accordance with state and federal guidelines and the agency's own policies and procedures. Each agency also does its own data analysis and statistical reporting, however in addition to a comprehensive annual statistical report, Verdugo provides assistance when needed for ad hoc reports and non-routine requests.
The Verdugo Task Force meets on the second Tuesday of each month. A Battalion Chief from each of the 11 cities represents his/her fire department at these meetings, where issues related to Unified Response operations are raised and resolved, with feedback from the Fire Chiefs if needed.
Questions from the participating fire departments regarding Unified Response may be addressed to the department's Fire Chief or Verdugo Task Force representative.