Fire Commentary: More Than Just a Canteen

By Terry B. Cox

In our suburban area, the canteen service is a support service of a good rehab sector. In the 1960s, firefighter rehab consisted of a station wagon providing coffee and pound cake. However, today, homeland security issues, the plastics and other materials that emit hazardous by-products in a structure fire, more restrictive bunker clothing, and the unified command system require a more creative, scientific approach to rehab.

Serving northeastern Illinois, The Metropolitan Emergency Support Services, Inc. (MESS) was formed in 1993 to be more than just a rehab entity. With the help of the local fire and police chiefs, local training academies, emergency services, and disaster agencies, MESS has developed into a support service that is identified on more then 350 box cards in our mutual aid box alarm system. In our area, the law enforcement agencies have identified areas where this service complements their agencies as well.

MESS serves approximately 1,000 square miles of northeastern Illinois with auto-responses (box cards) and on occasion, will also respond to the surrounding Wisconsin area as well. The response area includes all of Lake County and parts of Cook and McHenry counties in Illinois. In Wisconsin, MESS has responded to parts of Kenosha County. This response area includes 64 fire departments and 99 police agencies.

With 115 volunteers, MESS staffs five canteen vehicles and a warming/cooling bus and supplies portable toilets 24/7/365. MESS is recognized as a 501(C) 3, not-for-profit charitable organization with the federal government and a tax-exempt organization with the state of Illinois. MESS vehicles respond from fire stations within this primary response area, a dense urban area with a population of more than 750,000. For more than 15 years, MESS crews have responded to more than 3,000 calls—house fires, drownings, hostage situations, and crowd control. We may respond to a call expecting it to last the normal one to two hours, and not return for four days.

As a rule, when MESS arrives on location of a fire incident, a rehab area has already been established. As a crew enters the rehab area, it first stops at the squad (air truck) where they drop off their SCBAs to be filled and cleaned. They then continue to the mobile intensive care unit (MICU) to get their vitals taken. If everything is within acceptable limits, the crew will continue to the canteen for food and liquids. After a 20-minute rest, they will reverse the process and return to staging for redeployment.

In May 2007, MESS responded at the request of the Gurnee (IL) Fire Department to feed and rehydrate sandbaggers and emergency personnel at a flooded area in their town. We remained on-site for four days and provided between five and six thousand servings, before discontinuing operations. The river had reached its crest and started to subside. During this same time frame, MESS crews responded to six other box alarm calls. All the food we served was donated by the Gurnee community.

The Northern Illinois Police Alert Services (NIPAS) responded to four crowd control calls in 2008, responding with 100 to 120 highly trained and equipped police personnel, for which MESS provided rehab.

MESS participated in the first two U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s TOPOFF (Top Officials) drills, TOPOFF 1 and TOPOFF 2 in the Chicago area as part of the Logistics in these nationwide drills. In TOPOFF 2, we fed several hundred participants at three different sites: Glenview, Summit, and Northbrook, Illinois.

In addition to fire and police agencies, MESS also receives support from several large local corporations. The first fundraiser for MESS was held in September 2007 at a Fox Lake fire facility and was sponsored by the Lake County Fire Chiefs Association and Lake and McHenry County Special Teams. More than two hundred people attended and we collected more than $5,000 for supplies.

For more information about MESS, visit www.1800getmess.org, or call Chief Cox at (847) 812-5623.

Terry B. Cox is chief of operations for MESS.

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