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Fire agencies seek written mutual aid agreement
Ceres fire benefits from neighboring crews
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Firefighters from surrounding agencies helped Ceres firefighters battle the June blaze at the Vineyard Apartments. Mutual aid has been around for years but the agencies are putting everything in writing, along with a strategic plan. - photo by Courier file photo

The old axiom "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" also works among fire agencies.

Fire departments in Stanislaus County have always offered each other assistance during large fires or multiple call-outs but an effort that started in 2011 to put down a policy in wring is coming to a close. On Aug. 11 members of the Ceres City Council were given an update about the automatic mutual aid agreement between Ceres, Stanislaus Consolidated, Modesto and Turlock City fire departments.

Stanislaus County has 19 fire departments but only four are involved in the agreement.

"Really what this is is putting into writing what we do already today," said Ceres Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes. "We already provide automatic mutual aid to every one of these departments and they reciprocate back to us."

Standard operating procedures are being put into place in writing "to make sure everything works and functions as properly as possible."

The agreement achieves an important goal for Ceres. The National Fire Protection Association standard requires 15 firefighters on a first-alarm structure fire.

"Obviously we don't have 15 firefighters on a daily basis in our department so this will really benefit us," said Nicholes.

Mutual aid is not essential in smaller fires but more important in larger fires, such as the apartment fire at 1625 Richland Avenue.

"We needed a lot of assistance there. It gets very cumbersome for the incident commander to say send me from here, an engine from there, an engine from there."

Under the agreement, call out for different alarm levels will automatically trigger rolling out engines from pre-designated departments based on the geographical location of the call.

"This will actually enhance response capabilities for each of our departments," he said.

The agreement will also see that Ceres gets station coverage if personnel are out on many calls. It would also bring about station coverage during meetings or funerals should the need arise.

Since May, over 225 firefighters in the four agencies have been trained on policies, procedures and getting to know each other.

The agencies hope to get an agreement in place by Oct. 1.

"There are obviously some operational issues to work out ... to get four fire departments to work together is a huge thing."

Mayor Chris Vierra said with Ceres citizens paying a half-cent sales tax for police and fire, he doesn't want the agreement resulting in Ceres funding operations in other jurisdictions. Nicholes reported that the agencies have been tracking movements and concluded "We are actually benefitting from this more than the other agencies are."

Nicholes said all the agencies are struggling with station coverage issues and Modesto having to close stations to trim city expense.

"I've got four stations and I've got 12 guys on duty," said Nicholes. "That's not enough guys to do anything with in reality. It doesn't meet the minimum standard of 15."

The cost of gas and tires to roll out to other jurisdictional calls is worth it if Ceres doesn't have to hire more firefighters it can't afford, he added.