I grew up in a fire service family where my father, uncle and cousin were all career firefighters so by the time I started my own career in 1979 I had begun to assume some things to be universally true about my profession. I called them truisms. Truism #1; Since my father and other family members had all been required to become paramedics early in their career I had come to the naïve conclusion that all firefighters across the United States were also trained to provide emergency medical services or EMS. Little did I know that northern Illinois was really a trendsetter in this area and that much of the fire service was still resisting the role of EMS. Its funny how little thought you give to something that others you look up to accept as a fact.
Truism #2 was that fire departments across our nation came to each other’s aid through a prearranged mutual aid agreement known as the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System or MABAS. In reality, MABAS was a northern Illinois concept that originated in the 1960’s and didn’t expand throughout Illinois much less into Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana until post 9-11.
The MABAS concept was simple and easy to understand. The state was divided into divisions which typically reflected county borders unless you were the Chicago Fire Department who became their own division. Each member fire department then created box cards each year that spelled out which of your neighboring fire departments would come to your assistance and what they would bring for different categories of emergencies at five different box levels.
The member fire departments also agreed to share a radio frequency that was only used for MABAS calls and to be responsible for any injuries to their own personnel or damage to their own apparatus or equipment no matter where the incident occurred. Lastly, MABAS took the guesswork out of what qualified as a fire engine and how many personnel a fire engine was required to arrive with. The bottom line was that MABAS worked and with one radio request a fire department had access to almost unlimited resources.
As recently as 2010 I can remember attending the International Fire Chiefs Conference which was held in Chicago and watching in amusement as Chiefs from across the world marveled at a televised multistate MABAS demonstration. The demonstration involved the deployment of 33 fire service task forces including 297 engines, trucks, and ambulances along with 924 personnel to three sites in Chicago which would be fully staffed within 90 minutes. Having grown up in the MABAS world I simply assumed the demonstration would be successful although I was surprised that so many fire departments would spend the money on fuel and overtime just to prove a point. I also found it interesting that the Chicago Fire Department was participating in the exercise because for many years they had acted as if they didn’t need help from the suburbs.
The last truism I will speak about is the one that involved auto aid between neighboring fire departments. Where MABAS was only intended to be used at incidents that exhausted your organization’s resources, auto aid was designed to occur before that point as a supplement to your own effort. The value of auto aid was self-evident as a nearby neighbor would send an apparatus and personnel to a call which in turn allowed our most distant fire station crews to stay at home and remain available in case of another call on the far side of our fire district. The favor was of course returned when needed and as a result both fire departments were strengthened by being able to count on one apparatus from a neighbor.
So what has this got to do with Milwaukee County you are probably thinking? The answer is simply everything. In 2011 I left my organization in MABAS Division 4 to become the Chief of the Wauwatosa Fire Department in Division 107. MABAS had only expanded into Wisconsin in 2006 so the concept was relatively new but was already showing its value. Milwaukee, much like Chicago, had their own Division number of 109 because of their size and they also had a reputation that they did not feel they needed help from the suburbs. In return the suburban fire departments had learned over many generations to distrust the Milwaukee Fire Department and to assume that any help they provided would come with an expensive bill. But things were changing.
My arrival was only one of the changes that would set the table for a perfect storm. Milwaukee’s Fire Chief, Mark Rohlfing, was also relatively new and was the first Milwaukee Fire Chief to come from outside the Department. After listening to Chief Rohlfing’s heart felt offer to work with the suburbs through the MABAS System at one of my first Milwaukee County Fire Chief Association meetings I decided to not only accept his offer but to up the ante. Chief Rohlfing agreed to a lunch meeting where I explained to him that it made no sense to me that when we had a significant incident at a border we shared with the Milwaukee Fire Department (MFD) his Fire Department did not cross the border to help us and the same was true when they had a border incident. In essence I was suggesting auto aid.
Chief Rohlfing’s initial response was to say, “Rob, I don’t need your help but I am willing to send you help whenever you need it.” In return I thanked Chief Rohlfing for his offer but then I believe I surprised him when I responded that it would only work if it was reciprocal. I went on to explain that while MFD was significantly larger than their suburban counterparts that did not matter if the suburban fire department could reach the scene quicker. We agreed to give the concept some thought and after a few weeks had passed I received my answer. To his credit, Chief Rohlfing agreed to a pilot program that would be reciprocal and would later grow to include all Milwaukee County Fire Departments that border MFD.
Since then a lot has changed but I will stick to the highlights to make this article a reasonable length. The pilot program started with meet and greets where personnel from both MFD and the Wauwatosa Fire Departments had mixed responses. Some embraced the opportunity and others glared at their counterparts as if they were enemy combatants. Both Departments experienced varying levels of resistance and both had their share of detractors who said it would never work. In fact, one of the MFD apparatus drivers went so far as to respectfully explain to me that MFD firefighters were simply better than their suburban counterparts. I later learned that he was called into the Assistant Chiefs Office and told to get on board or he would be moved to a station where he would never see a suburb again. This in itself was a significant departure from the past as MFD was showing respect to their suburban partners.
Fast forward to today and I am proud to report that MFD and the suburban fire departments now work together on a regular basis through a hybrid form of operational consolidation that is very similar to a system utilized in the Phoenix, AZ area. The glares at the early meet and greets have been replaced by handshakes and friendly greetings based on shared respect and an understanding that we really do need each other and that working together is best for the citizens we protect. The Shared Services Group, as it is now known, still struggles to resolve expensive issues like communication platforms and the need for a single point of dispatch but they also have learned to embrace opportunities to train and grow together as the partnership evolves.
It would be easy for Chief Rohlfing and I to claim responsibility for this tremendous accomplishment but I think he would agree that we only created a shared vision that others made into a reality. People like Wauwatosa Assistant Chief Scott Erke, MFD Assistant Chief Dan Lipski, and North Shore Assistant Chief Andrew Harris really did the work that allowed very diverse and unique fire departments to overcome a hundred years of doing things differently in order to safely and effectively function together.
In closing, this article might lead the reader to believe that northern Illinois is simply more advanced than Milwaukee County in its approach to the fire service but that would not be accurate. In fact, one of my prouder moments was when some of my northern Illinois friends who are also fire chiefs asked me at a recent conference if we were really working with the Milwaukee Fire Department at an auto aid level. When I told them we were and explained to what level they just shook their heads and said they wished they had that kind of relationship with the Chicago Fire Department. They were even more surprised that MFD had requested to give up its own MABAS Division number in order to become one division with the Milwaukee County suburbs. And to think it all began with lunch.