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Flashpoint: June 2010

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. . .  and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.
-Acts 4: 32-35

June 4, 2010
By Peter Sells

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And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. . .  and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.
-Acts 4: 32-35

Those of you who know me may find it odd that I chose to quote the New Testament but the sentiment expressed fits this month’s topic like a glove. Picture a fire on the twenty-ninth floor of a robust, 45-storey, 1930s-era bank tower in downtown Toronto. There were no sprinklers on that floor, so the fire took hold quickly. With ceiling temperatures well in excess of 1100 C, the fire spread to the thirtieth floor. Fire suppression operations lasted more than five hours and involved more than half of Toronto’s on-duty personnel and apparatus. However, coverage across the city was maintained seamlessly as units from 22 surrounding municipalities responded into fire halls throughout Toronto. Common radio channels and prior training on joint operating procedures allowed this automatic aid system to function like a well-oiled machine.

This fire took place just a few years ago, in 2004, but if you are having difficulty remembering it, forgive my sleight-of-hand. It was at the LaSalle Bank Building in Chicago, and the town was the only detail I changed. Chicago is part of the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) which began in the late 1960s in Illinois. MABAS is the quintessential example of an ad-hoc group solution to common problems that has grown into the North American best practice for mutual or automatic aid.

When a fire department joins MABAS, it agrees to meet specific conditions for any MABAS responses, such as minimum standards for equipment and apparatus, adherence to MABAS policies for everything from RIT to fire ground safety. Most importantly, a common radio channel is used whenever MABAS is activated, and all agencies use a common Incident Management System. Member departments are assessed dues, which are used for administration costs and to maintain the common elements of the system.

The result is much like what you would expect from one enormous fire department. As emergency responses leave gaps in coverage, neighbouring departments respond  as needed or move into place to fill vacant stations. If those communities are left wanting, their neighbours shuffle into place. All these potential moves were originally kept on run cards in boxes, and although the boxes have been replaced by computer-aided dispatch systems, the box alarm name remains.

MABAS has grown to the point where it involves more than 1,000 of the approximately 1,200 fire departments in Illinois. Substantial growth outside that state has occurred, with active MABAS districts in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Missouri and Ohio. Included in there are several very large cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee and St Louis. I am trying to get my head around the scale of that territory, and I am picturing all the fire departments in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba operating as one co-operative system. The inevitable spin-offs, such as common purchasing for SCBA or bunker suits, would result in economies of scale well beyond what anyone in Canada is able to achieve. Examples from MABAS divisions include the development and purchase of a technical rescue trailer outfitted with hydraulic shoring and other equipment, or the outfitting and training of a division dive team and its associated response vehicle. Dues also offset the cost of training classes, such as incident management, officer development, hazmat and trench rescue.

The more I learn about MABAS, the more I wonder if and when the system will cross the border. There are substantial differences in fire department funding models in Canada and the U.S.; notably, our cousins to the south have access to upper tier funding, especially from the federal level. In many U.S. communities, the fire department is a separate entity from the municipal government. Such fire districts or fire territories, with separate taxation or funding, are much less common in Canada. Our fire and rescue problems, however, are essentially the same. In addition to the Chicago fire mentioned above, notable MABAS responses have included derailments, tornadoes, technical rescues and floods, all of which can and will occur in any given year in Canada.

Whether MABAS comes to us directly, through a border-crossing arrangement such as the one between Detroit and Windsor, or whether a Canadian region takes the initiative to independently develop a similar system, MABAS is an idea whose time has come. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” was the quote I was going to open with, but Americans aren’t too crazy about Karl Marx.


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch.


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