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ARFF Mutual Aid and Communication Network

By Wesley Long

Tetragnatha guatemalensis, a long-jawed orb weaver spider, may hold the secret to how we in the fire service can better understand communication and teamwork through mutual aid. These spiders put aside any potential differences to work together for a common goal and build mega webs through communal and cooperative methods. What does this do exactly? Well, for example the orb weavers are able to create a much broader network of safety and food supply and are thereby able to thrive as a species. Examples like this help us view our own networks through a series of emergency management tools such as systems and social cognitive theories.

Achieving such amazing work such as a mega web takes time, effort, communication and even instinct. In this, we are not much different than a colony of orb weaver spiders. From a mutual-aid stand point, aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF), LEOs, EMS, and fire agencies in and surrounding your airport all have the exact same goal: to save lives. How each of these organizations achieves that goal may be different but, in the end, we are all on the same side. Far too often this is forgotten or ignored for a variety of reasons from the legitimate to the mundane.

Generally, the first thing that always breaks down on an incident scene, during training, or in general is communication. This goes well beyond your frequency load, your cell towers, or even your resource capability and extends to your peer network at the base level of interpersonal communications. Systems theory simply stipulates that one part of the mechanism impacts the other and so forth across the entirety of the system. An airport environment is great to establish as an example of systems theory because so many parts are integral to the success of the overall mission: the safety of the flying public. The cultivation of partnerships through effective communication technique is literally the key to success over increasing positive impacts over negatives ones.

Application of social cognitive theory (SCT) in the context of how it best interacts in a system thinking framework can elevate your team and partnerships or destroy them. SCT is a major component in communication and learned behavior. If you have established leaders in your network and within your mutual-aid partnerships who understand the importance of proper communication, there is a great chance that the rest of the team will emulate that behavior. The exact same can be said for leadership who cannot or will not communicate effectively as they formulate what becomes a toxic cultural norm that is consistently at odds with a healthy team environment. This is unfortunately the easy path to take but is also easy to reverse if identified and rejected by those negatively impacted.

If we as a colony of first responders can focus on that end result and build a web of communication and interoperability, then we may find that our capabilities and our resource pool may be much greater than we originally thought. If you already have this foundation, congratulations, but far too often we don’t, or we lose sight of our goals through the daily grind, lack of training, or myriad other reasons. Mutual aid is absolutely necessary regardless of how big or small your airport is. Unfortunately, this can become easily convoluted with more resources and larger support chains because of differentiating technologies, training styles, turnover, and lack of time to get everyone at the table. Regardless of the difficulties you may face, they must be endured and a culture established that focuses on the care and feeding of mutual-aid partnerships and communication.

Success in communication within your mutual-aid network or even your organization is already plagued with pitfalls that you must sidestep and avoid daily. These range from politics, different leadership styles, communication techniques, and much more. Our organizational structure may suffer from similar problems in this regard, but there are always unique issues that you must identify and face if you want to succeed in integrating a successful first responder colony. The one pitfall that we all share is that of perception, which always evolves into cultural bias. If part of your organization or your mutual-aid network thinks something negative about something but never communicates this, then such a bias can form.

This is problematic for relationships across the spectrum of success anywhere, not just at airports. If you want to be successful outside the fence, then you must first be communication experts inside the fence. ARFF, maintenance, administration, and many more departments come together in a practical application of systems theory in such a way as to be comparable to mutual-aid relationships deep within your very own organization. We each impact one another in both positive and negative ways through the different cultures our departments possess. It is natural for one to not fully understand the mentality of another because we are all different types of people doing vastly different jobs, and that is ok.

The problems come when timid or nonexistent communication based on narrow or individualized perceptions are left one-sided and not allowed to be addressed and answered by the target audience. How do we stop cultural bias through poor communication? The path is not always clear or easy, but we in the service of the public understand that nothing ever worth achieving is done the easy way. Everyone from the bottom up and the top down needs to be able to say what they mean and mean what they say, but we know that is an almost impossible task to ask for. If there are a few strong yet humble leaders within the network not afraid to go outside their comfort zones, then sometimes that’s enough to successfully light the fire that sparks change.

** On the incident scene is not the place to exchange business cards. **

WESLEY LONG works at the Glacier Park International Airport as the fire chief, operations director and is a certified emergency manager, certified professional manager, ACE trusted agent, and Airport Security Coordinator. Prior to the 13 years he has worked at GPIA, he spent 10 years as a firefighter in the United States Air Force, spending six years in the Pacific Rim and four in Space Command.


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