(BLOOMINGTON) – The Bloomington Fire Department (BFD) announced today that by mid-May it will reprogram dispatch software to reflect the recently renewed and extended mutual aid agreement between and among fire departments serving the area, and also the termination of some of the automatic aid practices embedded in the dispatch system.
The long-standing interlocal practice of mutual aid – calling in help from neighboring fire departments as needed – will not change. BFD has renewed the formal mutual aid agreements with all Monroe County Departments and the City of Bedford. Bloomington residents can expect the same high level of fire protection service to continue without disruption; those outside the city’s corporate limits can count on assistance from the BFD whenever it is requested by their fire service provider.
The practice of automatic aid – responding automatically to a service dispatch call for a given address (rather than awaiting a request from the neighboring department) – has been in place for certain areas of the county based on informal agreements between and among departments. Efforts to formalize a county-wide automatic aid agreement began in July 2017, when the BFD requested that the other departments collaboratively establish the standards and protocols required for an appropriate automatic aid agreement. These efforts began after BFD identified recommendations programmed into the Computer Aided Dispatch (dispatch) system automatically dispatching City resources to neighboring destinations. Without a formal automatic aid agreement, these recommendations were unauthorized and leave the City open to liability for responding in areas to which they do not have the authority to respond.
Discussions and actions over the last 22 months have yet to achieve the demonstration of service levels by neighboring departments necessary to adopt a formal county-wide automatic aid agreement. While some progress in standardizing communication equipment, drafting and voting to adopt county-wide standard operating guidelines, and coordinating multi-jurisdictional training has been made, the components that the BFD identified in 2017 as foundational to an automatic aid agreement have still not been met. “The inability to meet the outlined standards and practices is not a reflection on the skills, dedication, or training of individual firefighters,” said Bloomington Fire Chief Jason Moore, “but a function of service model differences among the various departments.”
Nevertheless, on April 2, 2019, BFD administration was contacted by a representative from the Insurance Service Office (ISO) to confirm a neighboring fire district’s claim that it maintained a legal automatic aid agreement with the City of Bloomington. The ISO is an independent agency that reviews and rates communities on the basis of their fire protection. BFD reported to the ISO that this was not an accurate statement by the neighboring fire district.
When BFD administration contacted the Monroe Fire Protection District’s (MFPD) administration on April 8, 2019, to clarify the claim of an existing automatic aid agreement brought to the BFD’s attention by the ISO, they were informed that the MFPD planned to present the dispatch system components as proof of automatic aid even though the MFPD was aware there were no signed agreements with BFD. The claim of an automatic aid agreement with the City, without the necessary foundations, misrepresents the city stations, apparatus, and personnel all as deployable district assets for the MFPD’s entire jurisdiction.
“As professional fire administrators, we must accurately report our operations, resources, staffing, and other data points that are contributing factors used to determine insurance rates,” said Chief Moore. “Exaggerating or misstating capabilities and capacities are entirely inappropriate and can give insurers a false sense of security when underwriting policies to property owners.”
The status of the existing agreement was previously made explicit in an email Moore sent to all participating members of the Monroe County Fire Chiefs Association prior to renewing the BFD’s mutual aid agreement with all County departments March 26, 2019. “BFD will not commit [to signing an automatic aid agreement] till we finish laying the foundations necessary to safely operate as an automatic aid group and will insist on several terms to satisfy the ability to hold each other accountable to the minimum standards,” Chief Moore wrote in the March 21, 2019 email. “We are committed to moving forward but cannot half-complete another implementation of working together.”
Given the lengthy period of noncompliance and the inaccurate information given to the ISO, the BFD will correct dispatch to reflect the resource allocation outlined in the mutual aid agreement that exists between the BFD and other departments by mid-May. Upon reprogramming the dispatch software, City resources will no longer be automatically dispatched to neighboring areas outside of the City limits and outside entities will no longer be automatically dispatched within the City limits. This reprogramming will only affect City resources being recommended outside the City limits and areas inside City limits; any dispatch recommendations sanctioned between departments outside of the City will remain. The mutual aid agreement between the BFD and other departments remains in effect. If other fire service providers within Monroe County would seek to establish additional fire services to be provided by BFD, the City will entertain providing contracted service as they do with Indiana University. And BFD will continue to collaborate with all departments to explore the possibility of formal automatic aid agreements based on the appropriate protocols and resources.
A guiding principle of automatic aid is the conveyance of mutual benefit through an equivalent exchange. City residents support a delivery model that deploys full-time paid professionals with a minimum of four certified firefighters per large apparatus. This model outlined in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710 has been proven in National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) Staffing Studies to mitigate fire emergencies more effectively and efficiently than models that deploy fewer staff or have delays due to recalling off-site personnel.
In order for the BFD to establish an automatic aid agreement with Monroe County departments, certain requirements regarding compatible, comparable equipment and emergency scene activities must be met. Specifically, in order to function safely within an automatic aid agreement, the BFD will require firefighters to use personal protective equipment that clearly identifies their function in an emergency; common operational Standard Operating Guidelines (SOGs) and standardized communication equipment; and have comparable GPS tracking systems, radios, emergency scene accountability procedures, minimum staffing standards, and firefighter training and certification levels.
“Standardization and interoperability are critical. Firefighting professionals have learned from major events such as 9/11 and the Charleston 9 that we must be able to communicate and operate seamlessly with each other,” stated Chief Moore. “Compatible protocols and equipment are vitally important to providing the best public safety response possible. We believe everyone in Monroe County deserves that. With written agreements between and among the departments we can ensure that each apparatus responding to an emergency is properly staffed with the right number of well-equipped, consistently trained firefighters.”
The type of aid agreement a fire department maintains with neighboring departments can affect the rating each is assigned by the ISO, which is used by insurers to underwrite and price risks. The ISO reviews communities on the basis of their fire protection and assigns a rating between one and ten. An ISO rating of one establishes that the fire protection for that jurisdiction is exceptional, whereas an ISO rating of ten equates to not having any fire protection. The City of Bloomington upgraded its rating in 2017, improving from a 3/3x to a 2/2x scoring 86.97 out of 105.5 possible points (just 3.03 points short of becoming the first ISO 1 rated department in Indiana).