The Mutual-Aid Box Alarm System

THE MUTUAL-AID BOX ALARM SYSTEM, OR MABAS as it is commonly known, was formed in 1968 in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Captain Donald Kuhn of the Elk Grove Village Fire Department proposed the system and managed its implementation. Structured on Chicago box alarm cards that preassign the engines, trucks, squads, ambulances, and chiefs (and any other specialized equipment) to respond on a given level of alarm, MABAS adopted this simple model and still uses it today.

MABAS grew, and member departments were organized into divisions in the early 1970s. Chicago-area divisions serve a dense area; departments within the division serve a geographic portion of the metropolitan area without regard to county boundaries. These divisions usually consist of 12 to 20 departments. Typically, once outside the immediate Chicago area, divisions are comprised of one or more counties. The six-county Chicago metropolitan area has 18 of the total divisions. MABAS has 62 divisions in Illinois, eight in Wisconsin, and two in Indiana; there are more than 1,000 rostered fire departments, fire protection districts, and EMS agencies. Departments in Missouri, Iowa, and Michigan have expressed an interest in joining MABAS.

The Chicago Fire Department (CFD) is its own division. In the past few years, the CFD made a few requests for MABAS on extra-alarm fires for change-of-quarters coverage, although some suburban companies caught fires elsewhere in the city while deployed. Also, when there was a subway derailment and fire, Chicago made a MABAS request for ambulances.


A box alarm card template contains columns for engines, trucks, squads, chiefs, EMS, and special equipment and rows for the level of alarm (first, second, third, and so on). In each square of this grid, the resources due on each alarm are listed. Typically, a department lists in the first one or two rows its usual and customary assignment dispatched to a reported fire or an upgrade to a working fire. Subsequent rows then detail the resources due on the first, second, third, and additional alarms. Most cards contain assignments through the fifth- or seventh-alarm level. Some examples of these box alarm cards are presented in Figures 1-4.




In listing which companies respond when, the name of the fire department is placed in the column for the resource needed (rarely is an actual unit number/radio signature used). Some box alarm cards have a column for a rapid intervention team company. These columns may be modified for special incidents such as water rescue, technical rescue, haz mat, tanker/tenders, wildland, and EMS. Fire departments are free to determine the fire departments, the resources, and the number of resources per alarm level. Some departments have the same number of engines, trucks, and other equipment on each level. Others vary by alarm level. This is permissible. Usually, a single fire department sends only one company per card, although some fire departments will send more than one unit but usually not on the same level. This practice ensures one community or area is not stripped of all its resources. These units come from surrounding departments, even if that means crossing over into another MABAS division. Draft cards are circulated to all departments listed on a card. If a department listed on the draft card does not indicate a problem with its planned assignment during the typical two-week to 30-day comment period, the draft cards are placed in service.


When a department that had requested a MABAS box alarm has been sent all units listed on all alarm levels of its card and is still in need of resources, that department may then request one or more interdivisional box alarms or a Division Task Force (DTF) response. An interdivision box alarm is similar to a standard box alarm, except that each division authors the box alarm card, not an individual department. When a stricken department has used all its planned resources (exhausted the box alarm card), it can request an interdivisional box alarm. In this case, a division adjacent to the stricken department’s division is asked to send companies. The Division dispatches the specified companies, which respond directly from their stations to the scene.


Unlike an interdivisional box alarm that can have varying resources responding to the scene from multiple fire stations, a DTF consists of two engine companies, one ladder company, one heavy rescue company, three ambulances (advanced life support or basic life support), and a chief officer with assistant, totaling 24 personnel. DTF units meet at a central location in their home division and then convoy to the incident. Typically, these DTFs are obtained from divisions that do not touch the affected division, usually resulting in skipping over the division next to the incident. This is done because most of the time when one division has an incident that exceeds its box alarm card, neighboring divisions already have sent some units. Pulling a DTF out of that division may deplete resources below an acceptable level. Also, DTFs are designed for a sustained, long-term (12-plus hours) response vs. a speedy response. If you have already brought 100-plus firefighters and dozens of apparatus to the incident, you’re probably going to be there for a while.


MABAS is used daily for local incidents that exceed the capabilities of the local fire department. If a department has a fire, deploys all its companies, and perhaps had another one or two other departments send companies and then determines it needs more help, this would be the time it would request a MABAS box alarm. The majority of incidents are handled at the first or second MABAS box alarm level. Communications are handled by a single dispatch center for each division. The local fire department may have its own dispatch center, but the division dispatcher handles all further dispatches when that fire department requests a MABAS box alarm.

Communications are on VHF frequency, high-band simplex radios, using a main dispatch channel and several fireground frequencies. The nomenclature for these frequencies is standardized across the state.

From a legal perspective, a community’s governing body passes an ordinance to participate and then signs the MABAS agreement, not the local fire department. If separate fire and EMS organizations exist, they are both covered. When the city/village/town/fire district signs the contract, it is voted into MABAS by the MABAS governing body. There is no need for the fire department to sign an individual agreement with each fire department or division. The one agreement does it all. However, the MABAS agreement does not cover automatic aid, only mutual aid.

MABAS operates under a single written agreement and has a single operating guideline that defines the basic standard operating procedures, definitions of vehicles, and staffing. A four-member company is standard; this may be modified in some divisions.

The MABAS executive board meets quarterly to assist the divisions. For the most part, each division governs itself and coordinates with neighboring divisions using the MABAS agreement and general operating guidelines for direction. Currently, MABAS is undergoing a reorganization that will have the original concepts remain in place while providing for the regional differences that occur when serving local communities in more than 100 Illinois counties and allow for further development in states other than Illinois.

Several MABAS divisions operate special teams, such as technical rescue, hazmat, water/scuba, and wildland. There are 37 MABAS-recognized technical rescue teams and a similar number of hazmat teams in Illinois. Each specialty team has between 10 and 100-plus trained members.

MABAS integrates into the Illinois Statewide Mutual Aid Plan (SWMAP) on declaration of disaster by the governor. With the declaration, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) calls RED Center (the primary point of contact for all fire department mutual-aid requests under the IL SWMAP). At the request, RED Center then contacts each division with its assignment. A second dispatch center (Orland Central) geographically separate from RED Center backs up the system in case of a failure or threat.

MABAS was responsible for mobilizing more than 900 firefighters with apparatus to Katrina for six weeks. This was done after IEMA received a request from the Louisiana Emergency Management Agency through an EMAC (Emergency Management Agency Compact) request for state-to-state mutual aid. This deployment represented only three percent of the resources within Illinois; the resources were drawn broadly, ensuring an even distribution of the remaining resources and satisfactory coverage of all stations.

In May 2004, MABAS conducted its first statewide deployment when a tornado struck Utica, Illinois (near I-39 and I-80 in north central Illinois), about a two-hour drive west of Chicago. Several technical rescue teams and division task forces were deployed for approximately six days. In May 2006, MABAS participated with fire and EMS and special teams in the Chicago area and downstate disaster exercises, mobilizing hundreds of firefighters and EMS personnel in dozens of vehicles for deployment to multiple locations.

DREW SMITH, a 29-year veteran of the fire service, is deputy chief of the Prospect Heights (IL) Fire District. He has developed recruit, company, tower ladder, and aerial ladder training programs. He is chairman of the Illinois Technical Rescue Team Steering Committee and director of the regional MABAS Division 3 Technical Rescue Team and serves on the state fire marshal’s training committee. He has presented several programs at FDIC.

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