Joining forces: Cooperation is key in mutual aid agreement

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --

Several separate small patches of knee-high grass burning beside Interstate 40 traffic south of Tinker Gate earlier this month weren’t necessarily a big threat when they flared up. They were burning between two stretches of pavement – I-40 and its service road.

But plenty of drivers were calling 911 to report the highway-licking flames and the substantial smoke near Tinker Air Force Base.

It was an incident in which four departments allied in a mutual aid agreement responded to take care of the emergency: Tinker Fire and Emergency Services, Del City, Midwest City and Oklahoma City. Choctaw is also member.

Del City Fire Chief Jim Hock said the alliance is a key factor to meeting the current standards of the 121-year-old National Fire Protection Association.

Budget limitations in his department means there are not enough firefighters to cover active emergencies while at the same time having others on standby for other calls that may come in, he said.

“With mutual aid, a lot of times you have two options: You can either go to the incident, or you’re covering another station so that you can pick up that call volume that they’re not able to take at that time,” Chief Hock said. “That way the city’s not uncovered. A large fire takes everybody you’ve got. Well, what happens when a first aid call comes out next?”

Cooperation among the fire departments, which includes sessions of training together, is driven by a joint standard operating guide that applies to each member. The city departments are generally aimed at helping Tinker Air Force Base by manning its base stations when its specialized forces are fighting crash scenes or potentially toxic industrial accidents.

Chief Hock said city departments would generally cover locations such as Station 4, the west side location closest to residential areas. They could also back up Station 1, which is beside Tinker’s main runway, and be available to protect industrial operations in Bldg. 3001 and other work locations.

Mutual aid goes both ways. Tinker Fire and Emergency Services Major David Langford said the base has responded to 16 mutual aid calls as of Aug. 24. With Tinker’s billions of dollars’ worth of national defense assets, though, fire and emergency officials have to prioritize.

“We always take into account what our flying status is and inbound aircraft,” he said. “We don’t want to take away from the base, where we have so many assets, and we don’t want firefighters away from the base in case we have an incident. Our No. 1 priority is aircraft.”

The separate fire departments often send reinforcements early on, even though the actual emergency may not need them. A house fire, for example, could be huge and need many firefighters to be rotated for safety during hot summer weather, Chief Hock said, or it may be a small blaze for the first trucks and no other help is needed.

“It works out great for everybody because nobody really has enough people with cutbacks in the budget and everything else to have enough manning to put on the ground that they’d like to,” Chief Hock said.

Midwest City Chief Bert Norton echoed Hock on the problem with lack of resources.

“We have our guys training together so that we can provide the best service to meet the needs of our citizens in all of our communities,” he said.

As for the fires that erupted on I-40 on a Saturday on Aug. 5, fire officials speculate that the isolated and separate blazes along the service road may have started with an all-too-common cause.

“I never did hear the actual nature of what caused the fire, but it sounds to me somebody was probably dragging a chain on their vehicle, which creates sparks and that can cause a fire for miles,” Langford said.