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Deadly Maryland fire reminds us that DC doesn’t do automatic mutual aid

DC engine & truck closest to Montgomery County fire not initially dispatched

Fire Wednesday morning in the 4900 block of Western Avenue

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A question for everyone. If it’s your family trapped in a fire, or someone you love in cardiac arrest, do you want the closest firefighters and medics to respond or would you rather wait for ones further away?

It’s a question I’ve brought up many times before in this forum. An incident this (Wednesday) morning reminds me I need to bring it up again.

Two people died early today in a house fire in the 4900 block of Western Avenue on the Maryland side of the Montgomery County-Washington, DC border. When Montgomery County 911 dispatched the call, they didn’t alert the closest engine and truck company. That’s because the 911 center isn’t allowed to make that call. That’s because, unlike every other jurisdiction in the DC region, inside and outside the Beltway and all the way out to the far exurbs, the District of Columbia doesn’t do automatic mutual aid. If the fire was on any of Montgomery’s borders with five other counties, the closest firefighters would have been dispatched, border be damned.

No one can say that it would have made a difference for the two victims of this fire. But what we can say is the same message the chiefs of DC, Montgomery County and every other fire department in the U.S. usually tell us, “Every second counts in an emergency.” In this case, Engine 20 and Truck 12 from Tenleytown, DC are approximately 1.2 miles from the 4900 block of Western Avenue. The closest Montgomery County engine at Glen Echo is about 2.1 miles away from the address. The closest Montgomery County truck company in Bethesda is about 2.5 miles from the address.

For the record, because DC 911 received some calls about the fire on the border a minutes after Montgomery County was alerted, a box alarm assignment from DC Fire and EMS Department was sent to the address. When they arrived it was well after the first Montgomery County firefighters and were not used. Also, for the record, all of the jurisdictions surrounding DC have a mutual aid agreement with the DC Fire & EMS Department. It’s used when there is a large, multi-alarm fire, high call volume or a large number of fire or EMS units out of service. But there’s no automatic mutual aid with DC.

The most likely chance of saving someone’s life, whether it’s a fire or EMS call, is in the earliest stages of an emergency. It’s when those precious seconds count. Automatic mutual aid is not a new concept in the Washington area. For example, the fire chiefs in Fairfax County, Arlington County and Alexandria City erased its borders in 1974 with their innovative Northern Virginia Regional Response Agreement or NOVA.

It’s 2018. It’s well past time to change this. It may not have made any difference in this morning’s emergency, but we are lying to ourselves if we can’t admit there likely have been many cases through the years where automatically sending the closest fire and EMS units to an emergency on either side of the Nation’s Capital’s border would have saved a life. And there will be many, many more such cases.

I have a great deal of admiration for the leaders of the fire departments in this region. There’s not a better time or a better group of people to make this happen. Just keep asking yourselves the question I asked earlier, “If it’s your family trapped in a fire, or someone you love in cardiac arrest, do you want the closest firefighters and medics to respond or would you rather wait for ones further away?”

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