CPF District 5 represents federal firefighters across the state of California.

Good Neighbors: Federal Firefighters Look to Shore Up Mutual Aid

Photo: Craig Rose

Photo: Craig Rose

When disaster strikes, firefighters are ready to answer the call. 

No matter the patch on your sleeve, the badge on your chest or the department writing your paycheck, as firefighters, we’re sworn to protect the public. In California, there’s no better evidence of this pledge than the master mutual aid agreement, and if you’re searching for proof of this statement, recent events make it so that you don’t have to look very hard.

This past year, when historic levels of devastation struck our state, local and federal firefighters all answered the call. 

Federal firefighters from CPF’s 5th District stood alongside our brothers and sisters from CAL FIRE and local departments to combat these disasters, as resources from these agencies were deployed across the state. We were there on the front lines, defending communities outside of our own jurisdictions, the same way that state and local firefighters have been there for us in seasons past. This system of mutual aid is one of the most innovative and inclusive found anywhere in the world, and it’s one that, time and time again, has proved its worth when the unthinkable strikes. 

While the system is a strong one, it’s not without its quirks, and that’s especially true when it comes to federal firefighters.

As federal civilian firefighters, employees of a massive institution centered more than 3,000 miles away, our role in the mutual aid system isn’t always as clear cut as our brothers and sisters across California. Often times, our day-to-day responsibilities involve providing fire protection to military bases, or some other federal installation, that can sometimes feel isolated from the nearby communities, and in some ways, that sense of separation has found its way into the way we respond to major disasters. While a good number of California’s federal fire departments do participate in the master mutual aid agreement, across the board, it can be something of a hit-and-miss affair. 

There’s also sometimes a question of reimbursement, particularly when major incidents occur on federal lands, such as national parks or national forests. In the past, federal fire departments have had a difficult time receiving reimbursement for mutual aid work, due to a set of federal rules having to do with one federal agency billing another. Problems such as these only serve to limit the potential of our state’s mutual aid system, and stand in the way of its goal of providing the best level of fire protection possible.

While issues like these have hindered our role in the past, I’m hopeful that they won’t continue to do so in the future.

Toward the end of the year, I’ll be sitting down with leadership from the state’s Office of Emergency Services to get a better picture of how federal firefighters factor in to the state’s mutual aid system, gain a better understanding of their role and hopefully begin work to improve the system for the future. 

On the reimbursement front, discussions about placing a resolution before the IAFF convention are already in the works, evidence that our union voice can go a long way toward bettering the state’s fire service for all of us. 

Removing barriers such as these promises to improve how we, as federal firefighters, integrate with our local and state counterparts in the face of disaster, ensuring that when the call goes out, we’re all ready to answer. 

After all, state and local firefighters are our neighbors, and isn’t that what neighbors are for?