Regional Multicompany Hands-On Training

By Drew Smith

Many fire departments regularly rely on automatic aid or mutual aid to effectively respond to fires and other emergencies. Training together is required to achieve this goal and also to qualify for maximum credit from the Insurance Services Office (Section 507, Fire Suppression Rating Schedule). The goal of this training is to enable companies from different fire departments to work on a common goal. Incidents such as private dwelling fires that extend beyond the room of origin or occur in large commercial occupancies can challenge smaller to larger suburban departments, making mutual aid necessary. Interaction with incident command; advancing hoseline and supply pumping; large-area searches; and nonfire incidents such as hazmats, natural disasters, and active shooters are some of the topics that demand interdepartmental training.

MABAS Division 3: Start-Up

The question is, How do you do it? How do you drill with the departments north, south, east, and west of your jurisdiction?

MABAS Division 3, the regional mutual-aid group representing Chicago’s northern suburbs, is no different. It includes 18 departments with nearly 1,000 full-time firefighters who staff 39 stations, 34 engines, 34 advanced life support (ALS) ambulances, 18 trucks/towers, and eight heavy rescue squads.1 For more than 20 years, these fire departments have conducted semiannual multicompany drills. Ranging from skill development to full-scale live fire exercises to joint fire and police active shooter management, these sessions challenge different departments to work with one another. Each spring and fall, MABAS Division 3 conducts these drills. Each season’s drill consists of a three-hour session that’s repeated 18 times: once in the morning and again in the afternoon for three days over three weeks. Each three-hour session accommodates six to seven engine companies and three to four truck companies.

The original company drills began around 1990. At that time, only three departments had training towers, and live fire training was limited. The use of acquired structures for live fire in the northern suburbs wasn’t a viable option for many reasons. The goal of these initial company drills was to ensure that all companies had live fire training twice a year. For each session, companies were scheduled to rotate in groups to each site on specific dates and times. Companies were scheduled so as to maintain coverage of each district by using adjacent companies. In stations with multiple companies, only one company would be scheduled, keeping the other company available. If an extra-alarm fire occurs, the session would be canceled and all scheduled companies would return to their districts.


Over the past 15 years, a standard model has emerged: the three-day-a-week/three-week schedule. Each day has a morning session that is repeated in the afternoon. The model has a general theme-for example, rapid intervention, disaster response, and application of Underwriters Laboratories/National Institute of Standards and Technology recommendations have all been covered. These themes can be covered by a one-, two-, or three-skill session rotation. In the one-skill session plan, a large-scale incident is used, and all companies are assigned to various sectors/divisions/groups led by chief officers. In the two- or three-skill session plan, companies are rotated every 45 to 90 minutes. All models use a site safety briefing and end-of-training hot wash to begin and conclude activity. Written incident action plans (IAPs) using standard incident command forms are used in planning and briefings. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, compliance documents support these IAPs.

(1) Instructors review modern fire behavior principles using hands-on demonstrations. Participants were able to observe uni- and bi-directional flows, neutral plans, and gas cooling. <i>(Photos by Tim Olk.)</i>
(1) Instructors review modern fire behavior principles using hands-on demonstrations. Participants were able to observe uni- and bi-directional flows, neutral plans, and gas cooling. (Photos by Tim Olk.)

Under the current model, a session usually requires 12 instructors: one as incident commander of the event, one as site safety officer, and three or four per skill station; live fire stations require a minimum of four instructors: one as instructor in charge, one as safety officer, and two as ignition crew. NFPA 1403 is followed, but participants fill the functions of the rapid intervention team, pump operators, and instructors for each functioning crew.


All instructors originally came from the participating departments. These instructors were day staff or off-duty and paid overtime by their departments, which were then reimbursed by MABAS Division 3. This was the most expeditious method, but disparities in compensation surfaced related to rank and pay schedules. Departments contributing day staff were eating the costs. Departments paying overtime were reimbursed, but some paid significantly more than others. Company officers serving as instructors were making more than firefighters. Some department chiefs weren’t excited about the possibility of workers’ compensation claims when their members were instructing other departments. About 10 years ago, a new compensation system was instituted in which all instructors are paid by the regional fire academy. In turn, each department is invoiced a fee for each company participating that covers instructor compensation as well as supplies and materials used by the company during its session.

Planning Drills

When planning each seasonal drill, the first question is always, What’s our purpose? Is it to add new skills, review current skills, or create an opportunity for application/experience? It is truly difficult to conduct detailed skill instruction on this large a scale using a diverse cadre of instructors. Our drills tend to focus on providing the opportunity for applying skills already learned.

The second planning question is, Who is the audience? This isn’t as simple as it sounds. Is the audience firefighters, driver/operators, company officers, or command officers? Or is it all of them? Can you run one session and address multiple audiences? The answer is, it depends. We have run a session where the material was applicable to all audiences. We have run sessions where skill stations were tailored to job functions: All firefighters went to one location, all driver/operators to another, and company officers to a third. Each gets a tailored presentation and skill. Then, all three come together to run an evolution and apply their new information. One time, we ran a train vs. school bus incident where we had 40 manikins in a commuter railcar, a school bus on fire, an auto in need of extrication, and fire impinging on railroad tank cars. The audience was the three battalion chiefs who managed the 12 companies. Although we had nearly 50 firefighters, driver/operators, and company officers performing a wide assortment of suppression, rescue, and hazmat skills, the event was designed for the battalion chiefs to function as a sector/division/group within the hazard area, coordinating and communicating vertically and horizontally within the incident command system (ICS).

Creating Objectives

Once these two questions have been answered, you can create objectives along with detailed plans. These plans usually require logistical support. Any live fire training must be in compliance with NFPA 1403. How will you manage the required walk-through by all participants? What level of emergency medical services (EMS) and rehab will you provide? If your departments are not EMS transport or ALS providers, will those nonfire service agencies support your training if it becomes necessary? Will you need to supply motor fuel for fire apparatus, support, or site vehicles such as heavy equipment or all-terrain vehicles/utility terrain vehicles? Will you need heavy equipment to move props or materials such as junk autos? If so, where will you get it, and who will operate it? Are the operators trained? Many firefighters can do these tasks, but is there sufficient proof of competency to manage risk?

Besides the scheduling of companies, how will you schedule instructors and, prior to the event, how will you brief or train those instructors to deliver the plan? Do the instructors need a train-the-trainer? Will the message be universal? Can you supply this on video or laminated field operations guides so consistency and uniformity are achieved (our number-one complaint from participants is the lack of consistency and uniformity from the nearly 50 instructors we need to run one of these events).

Examples of Past Training

The early multicompany events used local drill towers. The first rotation was well-received and welcomed. The feedback from the companies was excellent. After the first two years, the limited floor plan became a hindrance. All the towers were configured with a single room on each level: You walked up the stairs two or three floors, opened the door, and found a 15 × 20 room with a fire and some smoke. There were no adjacent rooms to search. Do this two or three times, and you start wondering, What’s next? It grew old fast and didn’t challenge people. In fact, it became a risk because it fostered complacency.

In 1995, we conducted a high-rise walk-through. There were no live fires. Companies arrived in staging and were briefed. Next, they reported to the lobby in full personal protective equipment with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), hose, and tools.

(2) In a multicompany live fire evolution, a tower ladder from one department is used for upper-level access while different fire departments advance hoselines on the interior.
(2) In a multicompany live fire evolution, a tower ladder from one department is used for upper-level access while different fire departments advance hoselines on the interior.

Students were briefed on what was next. All companies rode the elevator under Phase 2 “firemen’s control” to two floors below the “fire.” Standpipe procedures were then covered, hose was laid out, and so on. Finally, the companies were demobilized and debriefed and returned to quarters.

A local college was planning to demolish a tall building of five or six stories. Fire chiefs arranged for its use for live fire training. After performing the necessary inspections, securing the required permits, and completing the planning, we set up the usual three-day/three-week schedule. The logistics involved in moving a large number of pallets, straw, and hoselines for protecting the ignition team to the upper floors were challenging. Pallets are heavy, and the participants weren’t present (they needed to be rested to fight the fire). We couldn’t use the standpipe because the participants needed it, so we had to stretch hose on the outside of the building up to the fire area.

Specific Skill Training

Sometimes specific skills need a workout. Two specific multicompany drills come to mind. One was the advancement of 2½-inch hoseline into commercial structures using paired companies. It sounds simple enough: “Engine 99, help Engine 1 with the line.” But, how do you do it? Who does what? Remember, Engine 1 is from the ABC Fire Department, whereas Engine 99 is from the XYZ Fire Department.

The other was a forcible entry obstacle course using the following scenario: You force your way into a commercial building. After the first door, you meet smoke. After each subsequent door, there is more smoke (we did this with smoke). How do two firefighters breathing from SCBA communicate with each other to work a door? What do you do when your saw won’t run in the smoke? When you run out of air, how do you tell the next company where and how to take over? Plus, there are many other questions that will come up.

Space does not permit me to provide a detailed list of the 50 or so drills MABAS Division 3 has conducted over the past two-plus decades. If you find your region needs or desires to start this type of training, start small. Plan effectively. The ICS planning “P” is a good place to start. Determine the need and the available resources. Consider everything mentioned in this article. Be sure to follow NFPA 1403 if you are conducting live fire training. Before any participating companies arrive, brief your instructors and conduct a trial run or walk-through. Then, go for it! You can do it; you just need to try.


1. For more information on MABAS, see “The Mutual-Aid Box Alarm System,” Fire Engineering, October 2007;

DREW SMITH, EFO/CFO, is deputy chief of the Prospect Heights (IL) Fire District. He has been a member of the fire service for 38 years and a chief officer for the past 26 years, serving in volunteer, part-time, private, and municipal career departments. He is the fire academy director of the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy (NIPSTA). He has been a member of the MABAS Division 3 Technical Rescue Team since its founding in 1988 and its director from 1992 to 2012; he is the liaison to the regional joint chiefs. Between 2002 and 2012, he was the chair of the MABAS-IL Statewide Technical Rescue Committee and coordinated 39 regional teams. He has multiple advanced certifications from the Illinois State Fire Marshal in the areas of firefighting, technical rescue, hazardous materials, instructor I-IV, and training program manager. He has presented at FDIC numerous times over the past 24 years.

Drew Smith will present “Regional Multicompany Hands-On Training” on Wednesday, April 20, 1:30 p.m.-3:15 p.m., at FDIC International 2016 in Indianapolis.

The Mutual-Aid Box Alarm System
Mutual Aid: Remember the Mission – Structural Firefighting
Regional RIT: the Suburban Response to Rapid Intervention

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