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Answering the Call for Help

​It's no secret that when disaster strikes, cities and towns are eager to help their residents and sister municipalities around the state. Last year's dual disasters, Hurricanes Florence and Michael, proved South Carolina cities are strong. Even so, failure to have properly-executed mutual aid agreements and procedures in place before an event can undermine cities' cooperative strengths, leaving municipal officials scrambling to find help when they need it most.

Hartsville Fire Department combats flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence
The Hartsville Fire Department combats flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.
Photo: City of Hartsville.

Mutual aid agreements cover many services
For years, emergency services have relied on local mutual aid from their neighbors to ensure adequate response to incidents that grow beyond their resources. Fire departments routinely require help from their neighboring departments. Police departments and sheriff's offices routinely call on their counterparts for backup.

Mutual aid is no longer just a function of emergency services, however. A variety of entities coordinate statewide mutual aid agreements, allowing public safety, utilities and public works to seek help from cities and towns from anywhere in South Carolina.

Mutual aid must be coordinated
The SC Emergency Management Division coordinates a statewide mutual aid agreement that includes nearly any type of aid a jurisdiction might need. Through the Statewide Mutual Aid Support System, cities and towns may request help directly from another jurisdiction or rely on a county EMD or the SCEMD to coordinate assistance to address nearly any need. The SMASS also allows cities and towns to send assistance to their neighbors. Participation in the SMASS is voluntary.

City of Lancaster crews assisting in Chesterfield after Hurricane Florence
City of Lancaster crews work to clear debris in Chesterfield after Hurricane Florence.
Photo: Town of Chesterfield.

Cities and towns with SMASS agreements in place can seek assistance in two ways. First, in the most common method, they may ask for assistance directly from another jurisdiction or through its county EMD. For small jurisdictions without staff, the county emergency management office is the best way to seek assistance.

For incidents that overwhelm a jurisdiction and perhaps its county emergency office, local officials may ask SCEMD to coordinate the response. SCEMD coordinates statewide responses from the state emergency operations center in West Columbia, where it gathers a variety of state agencies with disaster response capabilities. Agencies such as the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control, SC Department of Transportation, SC National Guard and many others maintain a 24-hour presence at the emergency operations center until a disaster concludes.

This coordination of efforts ensures state and local officials are aware of changing conditions that might affect their response to disasters. It also ensures resources are allocated to properly address needs as they arise around the state.

Mutual aid comes in all shapes
In conjunction with local and state emergency management officials, the SC Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network coordinates a voluntary mutual aid system for water and wastewater utilities. SCWARN requires participating agencies to adopt a mutual aid agreement which allows them to request and provide assistance for water and wastewater emergencies.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, SCWARN coordinated responses to several wastewater emergencies, including in the City of Loris, where a sewer trunk line collapsed. City of Camden crews assisted the City of Chesterfield to reroute a sewer line damaged by water that overran the bridge to which it was attached. The City of Columbia, meanwhile, helped restore the Town of Cheraw's water supply.

The SC Association of Municipal Power Systems, a Municipal Association affiliate organization, is another mutual aid coordinator. As a benefit for its members, SCAMPS coordinates an in-state mutual aid assistance network made up of its 21 municipal electric utilities. Not only do SCAMPS members provide assistance to their in-state neighbors, but they also travel all over the Southeast when needed. In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, six SCAMPS cities sent crews to Albany and Thomasville, GA, to help restore power to those stricken municipalities.

Rock Hill assisting other cities after Hurricane Michael
Rock Hill gave assistance to Albany, GA after Hurricane Michael through the
SCAMPS mutual aid network. Photo: City of Rock Hill.

SCAMPS members are also part of the Southeastern States Compact mutual aid network and a national mutual aid network coordinated by the American Public Power Association.

Mutual aid is a critical part of preparation
Preparation for potential disasters is always a moving target for cities and towns. Ensuring facilities and personnel are prepared is an ongoing process which changes with environmental and economic conditions and resource availability.

Along with assessing physical preparation for disasters, cities should include adopting a mutual aid agreement, reviewing it periodically and keeping it up to date as key aspects of their planning. This makes mustering assistance and procedural actions easier to execute once a disaster strikes.

Additionally, executing mutual aid agreements before disaster strikes is financially important for cities and towns. These agreements make clear what expenses and liabilities each jurisdiction will incur. Jurisdictions without mutual aid agreements in place cannot seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for expenses that might otherwise be covered.

Municipalities prepare for disasters and help others when they need it, and mutual aid agreements make strong South Carolina cities and towns ready to respond.