The Rock Island Arsenal Fire Department is equipped and staffed much like its municipal counterparts in the Quad Cities. But what happens when a department is confronted with a situation that exceeds its capabilities?

In an era of tight budgets local departments have banded together under a collective support agreement known as the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, or MABAS. The RIA Fire Department is a member of Illinois MABAS Division 43 that also includes Moline, East Moline, Rock Island and the Quad City International Airport in Ill., and Bettendorf, Iowa.

The MABAS system allows departments that have an incident that overwhelms their agency to request resources locally, regionally and state-wide to be able to safely mitigate the incident. The key to the system is planning for any number of contingencies in advance. Rather than call to request specific support on an ad hoc basis, departments, contact the MABAS dispatcher at the Rock Island City Police/Fire Dispatch Center, and reference a specific "box card" that indicates the type of emergency (fire, HAZMAT, rescue, medical, etc.) and Division 43 departments respond accordingly. When MABAS 43 agencies are requested for regional, state or national responses they are contacted "Red Center" dispatch in Wheeling, IL.

Each box card, named in reference to old fashioned fire call boxes, specifies not only the type of call, but also determines what equipment and personnel each department dispatches to the scene. If a second box is called, more units and personnel respond based on the plan outlined on the box card. There are five levels of box cards, equating to one through 5-alarm fires.

We work hand-in-hand with our local counterparts," said Capt. David Liske, RIA Fire Department. "When we need assistance, they respond to the Arsenal. When they need help, we go wherever we are needed."

In addition to the manpower provided, each department has equipment that is unique to their organization. By working together, all departments benefit by having access to gear they don't own or can't afford.

In addition to sharing resources, Division 43 departments train together monthly and quarterly to hone their collective skills. Each MABAS division goes through a certification and validation process every three years to ensure readiness.

MABAS mirrors Federal Emergency Management Agency not only by teaming local departments to provide mutual support to one another, but for MABAS divisions to support one another regionally and nationally.

Division 43 sent two engine companies and an administration team, including four members from the RIA Fire Station, to assist following Hurricane Katrina. Each of Illinois' 59 MABAS Divisions sent at least four people to participate.
"It was a unique experience for our personnel to work side-by-side with firefighters from New York and all around the country," Liske said. "We were glad we could assist and stand ready respond to whatever contingency might crop up next, whether it is here at home or elsewhere."