CADILLAC, Mich. (AP) - Regardless of a person’s situation, there undoubtedly will be the need for help with something.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that fire departments also rely on a helping hand when dispatched to a fire. Mutual aid is not a new concept and is universally used. But without it, the time it takes to put out a fire could take a lot longer.
What that means is instead of minor smoke damage, a minor fire could end up being more devastating.
As the Haring Township Fire Chief and the Wexford County Central Dispatch Director, Duane Alworden understands the importance of mutual aid agreements.
The perfect example of that is the Cadillac Renewable Energy fire from September 2019, Alworden told the Cadillac News.
Cadillac Director of Public Safety Adam Ottjepka said without the additional resources from Haring Township and Cherry Grove township fire departments things might have turned out much differently than they did.
Employees of the facility called the fire in shortly after 2 a.m. on Sept. 22, 2019. All employees had safely exited the building before the fire department’s arrival. At the time, there were three employees on shift.
Firefighters used defensive tactics and elevated water streams to knock down the fire. Once the fire was reduced in size and severity, conditions allowed firefighters to enter the facility and continue the extinguishment process.
After several hours, the fire was extinguished. The damage was primarily confined to one area of the facility, however, significant damages to that portion were noted.
“It was to the point where we almost took a defensive posture to it because of the volume of the fire,” Ottjepka said. “However, as things progressed and the departments came together, it all came together. That was a great save. That is one of the feathers in our caps. We worked very well together in a hugely positive outcome, not only for the co-gen plant but the community.”
Alworden said mutual aid isn’t just about helping each other with fighting fires but also having each department’s back if another fire starts.
With limited numbers of firefighters and most of the area made up of volunteer firefighters, Alworden said sometimes additional coverage may be needed if his department is already out on a call.
“Cherry Grove protects the city on the west side and we protect the north side and halfway to the downtown. It is vice-versa too,” Alworden said. “I have limited people and apparatuses. I might reach out to the city on the radio band and say, ‘You got the next one.”
Merritt Area Fire Department Chief and Missaukee County 911 Administrator Ed Nettle said his county utilized mutual aid before he started as a firefighter in 1991.
He said since 1991, fire departments have relied more and more on mutual aid. He said the biggest reason is the availability of staff. Businesses can’t afford to let employees leave work every time a call comes in. Coupled with the increased requirement for training and Nettle said it is hard to attract recruits.
Most departments require Fire Fighter I and Fire Fighter II training and Hazardous Materials Operations certifications that equate to 295 hours in course time, according to Nettle. He also said firefighters can only miss 10% of the lecture time associated with the training and must have 100% practical time.
In addition to that time commitment, Nettle said firefighters also must pass a written and practical exam of 200 questions with a 70% passing score and 12 practical stations.
“There are hundreds of hours of classroom, practical training, lecture and homework to volunteering or to be paid very little,” he said. “That has made it difficult for fire departments throughout Northern Michigan to attract or recruit new firefighters.‘
For that, Nettle said the importance of mutual aid is great and a necessity. Without mutual aid, Nettle said fires would still be fought but it would take longer, it would be harder and a lot less safe to do it.
Ottjepka said he is pretty sure all the chiefs in Wexford County and throughout the country would agree the No. 1 priority for each department is the “customers,” meaning the people who live in the communities that each fire department serves.
“Being able to rely on the outside agencies for support isn’t a new thing. It has been ongoing for generations,” he said. “When there is a major event we need help where you might not need it on a day-to-day basis. We will do what we can if we get the call.”
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