Southwest Harbor firefighters arrive to assist in fighting a small structure fire at the Blaze Restaurant in Bar Harbor. PHOTO BY LIZ GRAVES

Mutual Aid 101

BAR HARBOR — A familiar call was heard on radio scanners on the Tuesday night in early September when a fire was discovered at Blaze restaurant in Bar Harbor.

“Control, could you start Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, please?”

The fire turned out to be mostly contained in the chimney vent system for the restaurant’s brick oven, but firefighters erred on the side of caution since when they first arrived, flames were visible across much of one exterior wall of the building.

A crew of firefighters from Southwest Harbor arrived soon and helped finish checking for hotspots and cleaning up from the vent fire. While they were in Bar Harbor, a crew from the Tremont Volunteer Fire Department covered the station in Southwest Harbor. It’s the responsibility of each chief to secure coverage for his or her own station, although some departments are discussing setting up a system for that, too.

The call was for mutual aid from two neighboring fire departments. Mutual aid agreements are in place for fire, police and ambulance services between many municipal and county groups. Mutual aid can come in the form of manpower, equipment or station coverage in case of subsequent calls or incidents.

There are two different types of mutual aid, Mount Desert Fire Chief Mike Bender said, regular and automatic.

“A regular mutual aid agreement says that, when called by one department, the other department will provide manpower and/or equipment to the emergency scene. The purpose is to get more resources to scene if you have a large incident.”

Years ago, incidents requiring mutual aid help were rare, he said.

“When I started 30 years ago if you had a residential house fire, one department would take care of it. Nowadays we seem to be relying on mutual aid more and more for your everyday incidents because everybody’s so shorthanded.”

An automatic mutual aid system in one in which both departments agree to automatically respond if there’s a call, or a specific type of call, or a call in a specific area.

“It’s usually agreed that whoever’s first on scene will establish command,” Bender said. It’s best if the department whose jurisdiction the incident happens in can take command when they arrive, though, since they’ll have legal authority over incidents there, he said. “If something happened and a homeowner decides to sue, the department where the incident happens is going to be responsible.”

For both types of mutual aid, it’s recommended that departments enter into a formal written agreement. That protects the organizations legally, spelling out ahead of time roles and reponsibilities. It also makes clear who pays for fuel, staffing, damaged or broken equipment or worker’s compensation costs.

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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