Fire departments' Mutual Aid plan shares resources

Photo by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Numerous local fire departments and CalFire personnel participate in a controlled burn exercise at Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto in May. Such drills prepare firefighters for larger fires and emergency situations that require mutual aid.

When an emergency call comes in reporting a fire, a fire engine arrives at a Los Altos or Los Altos Hills home within minutes ready to battle the flames.

Depending on the address, the personnel alighting from the engine could be from the Los Altos or the Palo Alto fire station.

“People really don’t care if a red engine or white engine shows up or what uniform they have on – as long as someone shows up,” said John Jarvis, Santa Clara County Fire Department assistant chief.

Jarvis uses the distinction as an everyday example of how cities partner with neighboring towns to provide the most efficient service for residents through Mutual Aid and Automatic Aid, collaborative efforts to streamline emergency operations.

Sometimes the nearest fire station may not be located in a resident’s jurisdiction – for example, some Los Altos residents live closer to Palo Alto fire stations than those in Los Altos.

Jarvis explained how integral Automatic Aid, the day-to-day, predetermined cooperation between adjacent cities, and Mutual Aid, sporadic cooperation across jurisdictions, have become to response operations.

Although homeowners may experience the benefits of Automatic Aid through personal experiences in their own neighborhoods, Mutual Aid is often witnessed from afar. During the summer’s active fire season, the public observed the power of Mutual Aid on their television screens as battalions of engines and firefighters quickly appeared on the scene through a process that has been perfected over 50 years of cooperation.

First introduced to California in the 1960s when local fire departments struggled to extinguish large wildfires with limited resources, Mutual Aid enables districts to call on adjacent, regional and statewide fire departments for resources and personnel, with the understanding that the agencies would return the favor in the event an emergency occurs in their neck of the woods.

Jarvis noted that Los Altos Hills received Mutual Aid in 1985 when eucalyptus trees sparked a fire along Liddicoat Lane and Arastradero Road. In what was at the time the state’s largest mobilization of resources, the fire destroyed nine local homes and wreaked more than $1 million in damages.

During the 2013 fire season, the Santa Clara County Fire Department was asked to mobilize teams to assist in Southern California, the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park and the recent Mount Diablo fire in the East Bay.

The county’s local fire service and Mutual Aid rescue plan includes four predetermined strike teams, allowing for quick dispatch when calls for mutual aid come in to the Santa Clara County fire coordinator. Each strike team comprises five fire engines and one chief. Although all of the county’s strike teams are now back home, some specialized personnel are still on the ground across the state.

For residents concerned that sharing resources outside the district could reduce available help should a disaster occur in Los Altos or Los Altos Hills, Jarvis underscored that the engines for the county’s strike teams come from multiple stations, and “nobody is too depleted to take care of resources at home.”

“We may be sending help out … but there may be a time we need help to come in,” said Jarvis of the give-and-take involved in the partnership. “Just like we share the wealth, we share the burden.”

For more information on the Santa Clara County Mutual Aid plan, visit

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