Michael Morse: Mutual Aid: A Simple Start to Regionalization
We are taught at an early age to call 911 in case of an emergency. People’s perception of what an emergency is may differ, but one fact does not; we expect our calls to be answered expediently. Fire departments handle most 911 calls in our area. Those departments pride themselves on a speedy response to calls from the community. When the bell tips at a fire station, everything stops, personnel drop whatever they are doing and hit the apparatus floor. Meals go cold, showers stopped half taken, cleaning and maintenance jobs are not finished. Those things can wait. Nothing matters but the call. Within thirty seconds, the trucks hit the street. People know that help is on the way. They assume the closest units are answering their calls, and they are correct in that assumption. What they may not be aware of is how far the closest unit actually is.
Providence Mayor David Cicilline recently proposed legislation aimed at clearing potential hurdles in the way toward regionalization of city departments. In a carefully worded statement, he cites the need to maintain services and cut costs in difficult economic conditions. Planning for regionalization would not begin in earnest until legislation is passed, the Mayor stated.
North Providence’s Mayor Lombardi notes that the closest responders are not always the ones that are sent, due to jurisdictional complications. Our elected leaders have begun the process of considering consolidation of our emergency response departments. Consider how many years the consideration will take before any progress is made.
A good place to begin consolidating emergency service organizations in and around the Capitol City is to expand existing mutual aid agreements. An automatic dispatch of the closest unit makes sense. The logistics of doing so will be a difficult, but far from impossible task. All considering could be done quickly, and a plan could be put in place within months, not years.
On any given day the cities of Providence, Pawtucket, Cranston, East Providence, North Providence, Johnston and Central Falls provide mutual aid to each other, mostly in the emergency medical services departments. As the system currently works, a municipality must drain all of it’s resources before another town can be called for help. People who live on or near town lines are particularly at risk. If a life threatening emergency occurs, they could, and often do wait for an advanced life support vehicle to arrive from the other end of the town or city while a rescue from the next town sits in the bay, in service, a few blocks away waiting for a call from inside the borders of their own city.
Because of the population’s increased use of 911 for routine medical problems, urban municipalities cannot keep up with the demand for emergency services. It is an ebb and flow system, one on the brink of collapse on a daily basis. Meeting the needs of every caller would bankrupt most municipal budgets.
Presently, each city or town is responsible for providing coverage inside it’s own border. Some stations were built “close to the line,” prior to the construction of major highways. It was a different world when these places were built, the planners of those long gone days had different problems to consider, different political alliances to placate and a completely different landscape.
Without scrapping the current system and implementing better policy regarding the dispatch of emergency resources, cities and town departments must rely on each other. An ultimate goal of consolidating these departments is desirable, but in reality is decades away. Consolidation based on need already happens on the street level, and with few exceptions runs smoothly.
An automatic mutual aid system and agreement will greatly increase the effectiveness of our public safety departments. Mayors and town managers will be forced to work together to make a system badly in need of repair more efficient. The opportunity for grandstanding will be taken away, political gain would be nil, and simple, good governance shown to be an effective tool in bettering the lives of the citizens by providing quicker emergency response to whatever needs may arise. It is the response times that need improvement, and automatic mutual aid will help save lives.
Michael Morse is a Providence EMT and firefighter and writes a blog, “Rescuing Providence“.