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A 21st-Century Bucket Brigade: The Lakes Region Mutual Aid Fire Association

By Elisha Neubauer

Since 1951, with a little modern technology and a lot of old-fashioned common sense, New Hampshire's Lakes Region Mutual Aid Fire Association has successfully brought together the fire and emergency services of multiple communities to help each other in times of need.

What business model can boast such a sixty-year history of success? Simple. The Lakes Region Mutual Aid Fire Association (LRMFA) is not a business, and its model appears to be the extended family. "In the early 1950s, many New Hampshire fire departments were recognizing the need- and the advantages- of combining their resources," says Jim Hayes, Chief Coordinator of the LRMFA. "Most fire departments were staffed by volunteers, and community funding for equipment varied widely between towns. Small towns were not equipped to handle a major fire on their own. Discussion began about forming mutual aid associations throughout the state, including the Lakes Region."

Thus was born the Lakes Region Mutual Aid Fire Association, an organization that coordinates the efforts of fire and EMS services among the member communities. "When a community joins the LRMFA," says Hayes, "it commits to making its fire & ems resources available if possible to assist at incidents in other member communities at no cost. The agreement of 'mutual aid' is what makes the organization work." As Hayes also points out, the LRMFA is not itself a fire department: it has no fire trucks or ambulances. Rather, its staff of dispatchers direct traffic among emergency responders.

"A single dispatch center that handles all of the fire and EMS incidents eliminates the need for multiple dispatch centers, thus reducing costs to the communities," says Hayes, "but more importantly it streamlines the communications and makes the emergency scene more efficient and safer than when emergency units are talking to multiple dispatch centers on multiple frequencies."

Currently, the LRMFA handles an average of 59 emergency calls per day, and in 2014, the organization coordinated the efforts of fire and EMS personnel in 22,253 incidents. Nonetheless, working behind the scenes as it does, the organization is not well-known to the public. "Most residents know very little about the Lakes Region Mutual Aid Association," Hayes notes, adding that "most people do not realize that when they are talking to the dispatcher requesting help, they are not talking to someone at the fire station in their community."

At a time when it seems that every public function from education to incarceration to providing clean water is being privatized for profit, the thirty-five communities that comprise the LRMFA are sticking with what works for them. "The agreement of 'mutual aid' at no cost is what makes organizations of this type effective," Hayes observes.

"Very few fire departments in New Hampshire can handle more than one or two incidents at the same time, nor can they handle larger fires themselves due to the limited personnel available. Most fire departments in the LRMFA are on-call/volunteer departments with the rest having a mix of career staff and on-call staff. In any case none of these departments can handle a building fire without assistance from another department."

Coming to the aid of others in need; working together. It sounds like the old practice of the bucket brigade, when ordinary folks would quickly organize themselves to put out a fire in a neighbor's house. While the buckets may have been exchanged for modern firefighting and emergency medical equipment, the communal spirit of the old bucket brigade lives on in the Lakes Region Mutual Aid Fire Association.

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About The Author

Elisha Neubauer is a freelance editor, ghostwriter, book reviewer, and author. She is...

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