by Riley Land, Deputy Director
Emergency Management Division, Columbus Fire and EMS
A successful working partnership, alliance, or networking relationship among multiple concerns is often referred to in business management theory as the "Hub and Spoke" paradigm. Major corporations have refined this model over the years, and now government entities often use this theory to manage their inter-relationships with other cities, counties, or agencies. As with most public safety departments and agencies, we find management methodologies that work for us but have never really bothered to figure out what to call them. Who has the time? With fires to put out, sick and injured people to transport, and bad guys to arrest, nobody really wants to delve into business theory models thirty minutes before the end of the day or the shift. The hub-and-spoke analogy is so good, though, let’s make the time and we may end up being better managers for the effort.
If we apply this thinking to our mutual aid agreements and relationships with the state and federal governments, we would often identify relatively large jurisdictions with a reasonable number of toys, funding, and person power as the hub. Surrounding and contiguous jurisdictions of lesser size and means would represent the spokes of the wheel. It takes both parts to make the wheel turn and hopefully end up a little further down the road than if we had undertaken the journey alone. The very name, "mutual aid agreement," indicates that both parties will somehow benefit, both in the short term or long term, and by entering into this agreement it signifies that we understand that all parties bring something to the table. It outlines the sharing of responsibilities, prescribes the methods by which costs may be reimbursed, indemnifies parties of certain liabilities, and basically codifies a template for smooth, seamless, efficient call-up and rapid deployment of critical resources from one jurisdiction to another in an emergency. End of story, problem solved, move on to the next big thing, right? Half of you are laughing, a quarter of you are laughing out loud, and the rest are looking up my Chief’s number to call and gently recommend that I be sent for a drug test. It seems that I forgot to mention the "real world."
We all stay pretty busy with emergency planning, regular employee evaluations, equipment maintenance, vehicle breakdowns and repairs, time sheets, run logs, PCRs, paying bills, endless forms and documents, and a million other unexpected demands on our time. If we do carve out a moment or two, usually at home or on weekends, and download a generic mutual aid agreement from a reputable site, and edit it to fit our needs, the fun has just begun. If you are the large jurisdiction, you take the agreement to your chief or CEO and they respond with the standard, "What’s in this for us, we are the ones that will get the call to go help. We can’t approve any overtime for this since the last big crackdown by the finance guys. Have you run out of things to work on, what’s up with this?" Then the thought hits you, who will be the person that sells this crazy idea up the line? Who will be the person that takes the time to identify a contact person in the other departments named in the mutual aid document? Who will jump in their vehicle and go to the named jurisdictions and answer all their questions? Who will meet with the CEOs and Chiefs to get the necessary signatures to make this crazy thing legal and worth the paper it’s printed on? More importantly, who will put their reputation, chance for promotion, and maybe their chance to stay gainfully employed on the line if this thing goes terribly wrong? The bad news is that it’s probably you, and the good news is that it’s probably you. You are about to become the most important part of the "spoke and hub" concept. You will become the axle. The part that stays greasy, catches all the heat, and ends up bent. Remember, without the axle the wheel doesn’t go around. The axle will insure that the document works for all concerned, gets reviewed and signed every cycle, plans exercises and drills, and keeps all the eccentric, eclectic, type A personalities stroked and satisfied. You may be called on to resolve conflicts and disputes among the signatories with the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon and the skin of an alligator. You may find yourself researching federal grants and then following on as the point of contact for grants management. This may involve developing equipment specifications, receiving and checking off shipments, and maintaining detailed and flawless paperwork documenting equipment issue and maintenance logs. If you think you just don’t have the time to make this happen, you should be able to find some extra hours in the day. My bet is that you are probably wasting some valuable hours between 2:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m., sleeping.
The payoff to this grand undertaking is worth the effort. You will someday be able to watch this glorious enterprise blossom into a successful, meaningful, working partnership and maybe even save a few lives or help a few citizens in the process. The best part is you can then stand back and watch someone up the line take the credit. After all, it was their idea, right? Along the way you can have your "law dog" friends call you "hose dragger" and your fire and EMS friends call you "doughnut" and the rest of your peers ask you, "When did you go over to the dark side?" Smile at them, knowing that what you are doing is working. A significant number of grants these days are targeted toward the concept of "regionalization." Simply meaning that Uncle Sam wants the most bang for the buck, and bringing several counties and entities together in a regional planning and response concept means we are providing this service to exponentially more citizens. It will work, it does work, and it can work. It will take a little work on someone’s part, so find your "axle" and get the hub and spoke turning. If it’s any consolation, I finished this article at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday morning of the Memorial Day weekend. I told you that you were wasting too much time sleeping, Axle.