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Mutual aid in fires not always mutual

By Ed Brock

One day after the News Daily disclosed that firefighters sat idly by when they were not allowed to fight a church fire last month, Clayton County Commission Chairman Crandle Bray defended the county fire department.

Bray said he is satisfied that Clayton County Fire Chief Alex Cohilas is making appropriate use of the mutual aid system. More isn't always better in fighting a fire, Bray said.

"We've had incidents in the past year where people pull up and run over our hoses and that's what we're trying to avoid," Bray said. "There needs to be strict organization in the fighting of a fire."

Morrow fire units responded to the fire but were turned away by Cohilas who had to call for additional units from his own department to fight the blaze. Cohilas said previously that the Morrow unit did not have enough firefighters to meet his department's 16-person requirement for a second-alarm package and had "nothing to offer above and beyond the resources already available."

Cohilas also said he did not call on the Morrow department under the existing mutual aid agreement because the county had not used up its available resources

Firefighters often say that when someone's house is burning down it doesn't matter what color the fire truck is that comes to put it out.

At one time in Clayton County that was the case when there was a system in which both municipal and county firefighters responded automatically to fires in certain locations. That "mutual response" system is no longer functioning.

"The primary value of mutual response (on a first call) is for citizens of unincorporated Clayton County whose homes are close to a city fire station," said Morrow Fire Chief David Wall.

There are conflicting reports over whether or not that agreement is still in existence between Morrow and the county.

It has certainly been terminated between other municipalities.

The agreement was canceled a few years ago, Bray said.

"What was happening under the mutual response is the call would go out and everybody would have responded, and 99 percent of the time it was something one department could have handled," Bray said.

The mutual response agreement was terminated between the county and the city of Jonesboro some time before he started in January, City Manager Jon Walker said.

But Morrow City Manager John Lampl said he hasn't seen any paperwork showing the agreement has been officially terminated.

"To my knowledge that's still in effect," Lampl said.

Wall said that he is not certain that the Evangel Temple Bible Church on Rex Road that was almost severely damaged by a fire on May 22 would have been included in the old boundaries of the mutual response agreement. The church is outside the city limits of Lake City, which is covered by Morrow fire services under contract, and not Morrow.

It's usual that in mutual aid agreements one department has to call for help from other departments depending on the situation, Forest Park acting Fire Chief Eddie Buckholts said. Buckholts is also the state operations chief and mutual aid duty officer for the Georgia Mutual Aid Group.

"Normally it's decided when they get on the scene and see they're going to need additional help or based on information from the call," Buckholts said. "A lot of it has to do with the working relationship between mutual aid partners."

GMAG includes 63 departments around the state with agreements to assist one another when needed, Buckholts said. Forest Park never had a mutual response agreement with the county, Buckholts said, because they never had a need for one. As for mutual aid, the overall relationship between the city and the county is good, Buckholts said.

Most often they have used the system for emergency medical calls, Buckholts said.

"There have been some isolated incidents through the years when it may have been beneficial for us to be called," Buckholts said. "The spirit of cooperation among some departments in the county is less than others. That spirit does seem to be lacking sometimes in the county department."

The fire that occurred in June 2002 at a U-Haul storage facility on Ga. Highway 85 near Riverdale would have been a "mutual response" fire, Riverdale Fire Chief Billy Hayes said. That is, had the agreement between that city and the county not been terminated due to an annexation dispute between the two government entities.

So Hayes' firefighters, who were not asked to help under the still existing, simply stood by to make sure the fire didn't spread into their territory.

None of the fire chiefs would comment on whether or not the additional response would have made a difference in either fire.