Emergency Response Interoperability + Mutual Aid Agreements

Managers can look to the government for help when preparing for an emergency, but what resources are available?

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Broadening the scope of response expertise can greatly benefit companies in the event of an emergency incident or disaster. Interoperability and associated agreements with local, state and federal agencies may provide additional resources based on particular experiences, research, or occupational training in a particular area, potentially reducing response time during a dire situation.

According to FEMA, “mutual aid agreements and assistance agreements are agreements between agencies, organizations, and jurisdictions that provide a mechanism to quickly obtain emergency assistance in the form of personnel, equipment, materials, and other associated services.”

Emergency managers should regularly meet with government agencies, community organizations, and specialized response organizations to discuss likely emergencies and their ability to contribute resources. Mutual aid agreements should facilitate a rapid, short-term deployment of emergency support prior to, during, and after an incident. However, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Planning Guide states that a response from state or federal resources can take up to 72 hours or longer to arrive.

Mutual aid agreements, FEMA states, do not obligate agencies, organization or jurisdictions to supply provisions or aid, but rather mutual aid agreements and assistance agreements provide a need-based tool should the incident dictate the requirement. These agreements ensure the efficient deployment of standardized, interoperable equipment and other incident services or resources during incident operations. However, emergency managers should consult their company’s legal representative prior to entering into any agreement.

The designated emergency manager will typically establish mutual aid agreements. However, the incident commander, in coordination with a liaison officer, must have full knowledge of the agreements and respective roles the organization(s) will play during a response.

The NIMS Planning Guide identifies several types of mutual aid agreements that can benefit companies. These agreements include, but not limited to:

  • Automatic Mutual Aid Agreement: Permit the automatic dispatch and response of requested resources without incident-specific approvals. These agreements are usually basic contracts
  • Local Mutual Aid Agreement: Neighboring jurisdictions or organizations that involve a formal request for assistance and generally covers a larger geographic area than automatic mutual aid
  • Regional Mutual Aid Agreement: Multiple jurisdictions that are often sponsored by a council of governments or a similar regional body
  • Statewide/Intrastate Mutual Aid Agreement: A coordinated agreement throughout a State or between states that incorporate both State and local governmental and nongovernmental assets in an attempt to increase preparedness statewide
  • Interstate Agreement: Out-of-State assistance through formal State-to-State agreements such as the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, or other formal State-to-State agreements that support the response effort
  • International Agreement: Agreements between the United States and other nations for the exchange of Federal assets in an emergency
  • Other Agreements: Any agreement, whether formal or informal, used to request or provide assistance and/or resources among jurisdictions at any level of government (including foreign), NGOs, or the private sector

Memorandums of understanding (MOUs), or letters of intent, may be used with the private sector and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to facilitate potential collaborative efforts in the event of an incident. MOUs can be legally binding depending on the intention of the contractual parties, the language used in the document, and the residing jurisdiction. However, other MOUs can be construed as a non-binding, “gentlemen's’ agreement”.

The U.S. Department of State suggests the following regarding MOUs:

“While the use of a title such as “Memorandum of Understanding” is common for non-binding documents, we caution that simply calling a document a “Memorandum of Understanding” does not automatically denote for the United States that the document is non-binding under international law. The United States has entered into MOU’s that are considered binding international agreements.”

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