What constitutes an "alarm"? In other words, how does a one-alarm fire differ from a two-alarm fire, etc? -- Bill Hollein, of Breese
What seems like a simple question really isn't quite so straightforward, so it took a bit of digging to smoke this one out. But I hope you find this primer from Belleville Deputy Fire Chief Tom Pour as interesting as an episode of "Chicago Fire."
On the Internet, you'll find many still under the impression that each alarm represents another department being called to a fire, but that's not quite it. Each alarm does usually mean more equipment racing to the scene, but the details depend on the town and its resources.
Let's take Belleville. The city has four stations with two trucks each -- one ready for action and another for backup, Pour says. In a relative minor emergency -- a report of carbon monoxide, for example -- the city probably would send a truck from two stations, depending on the location of the emergency. It's what Pour calls a "still alarm."
A "one alarm" is the next step up -- a report of smoke in a house or an actual house fire. This generally would bring a truck from three stations, so, for example, if the fire were in west Belleville, vehicles likely would come from station 2 (2200 W. Washington), 3 (6200 W. Main) and 4 (1125 S. Illinois). Station No. 1 on Carlyle Avenue might even move its active truck to a more central location for a speedier response to a second emergency. Each station still would have one truck in reserve for additional fires.
If that wasn't enough, a second alarm would be sounded, bringing that fourth active truck to the scene. In addition, the department would be using its "hyper-reach" telephone system to call in additional personnel to staff each station for additional emergencies.
"It used to be that dispatch would call the captains and the captains would call the people," Pour said. "Now the dispatcher hits one button and an automatic message goes out to everyone who needs to come in. That has cut the response time from 20 or 30 minutes down to five or six minutes depending on how close people live to the station."
In some places, you may hear of three-, four- and five-alarm fires, but not in Belleville. If you have a blaze like the one that raged in downtown Belleville in May 2010, the alert would be raised from two alarms to general alarm.
"After the second alarm for us, there really isn't a third alarm," Pour said. "Because once all of our trucks are called, we go to general alarm. We just call everybody and then they would report to the scene in their personal vehicles or whatever."
But this differs widely depending on the size of the city and the resources available.
"On a first alarm in St. Louis City, they probably would send eight or 10 trucks depending on the resources they have," Pour said. "They may have so many pumpers, ladders and a squad on the first alarm. When they go to a second alarm they'll bring in so many more pumpers, so many more ladders and another squad. And so on down the line --- just more trucks to fill assignments."
Small towns, of course, fight fires on a smaller scale.
"For most of the departments in this area, a first alarm is their trucks plus one neighboring department, depending on their staffing and the time of day," Pour said.
So, in these cases, a second alarm may indeed involve another neighboring department -- not necessarily to come to the fire but perhaps simply to stand as backup. Pour remembers a recent fire in Freeburg when Marissa was asked to send a truck to the Freeburg station.
"That way their citizens can still have somebody who can respond straight from the station," Pour said.
What's fascinating is that these assignments are done automatically thanks to a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system and the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS), a consortium of emergency services across the state that band together to provide mutual assistance. In metro-east counties, dozens of fire departments and protection districts belong to their respective MABAS divisions.
In practical terms, this means that if a fire broke out in the Dutch Hollow area of Belleville and all of the city's firetrucks were battling other emergencies, a computer would tell dispatchers to call in crews from Signal Hill or French Village.
And, thanks in part to Pour, response times soon may get even faster. Just recently, Pour tried to write down every possible emergency scenario and the resources needed to handle them. This massive binder of data now will be fed into a new CAD system.
"It's a huge task," he said. "But when there's some big event going on, you don't want to be sitting around, thinking about who we can get to come. The dispatch system would automatically know what other agencies can be dispatched."
Who was/is the tallest man ever to be a regular shortstop in pro baseball?
Answer to Tuesday's trivia: In 1935, Carlton Cole Magee patented the first parking meter (No. 2,118,318) and started the Magee-Hale Park-O-Meter Co. to manufacture them at plants in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The first meters were installed in Oklahoma City in 1935, and you probably won't be surprised to learn that vigilantes reportedly tried to destroy them en masse.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org.