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Mutual Aid

Box Alarm System

MABAS Division HQ's

The Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) is an organization of hundreds of fire departments in the Illinois and Southern Wisconsin. MABAS provides an orderly move up of equipment to the scene of fires, accidents or other incidents. Equipment is moved around according to predetermined lists, called "Box Cards" Each card covers specific types of incidents in specific areas. Small towns may have a single Fire box card, larger towns may have dozens. MABAS was recently adopted statewide in Illinois for Fire and EMS Mutual Aid. More divisions are being added monthly and eventually the entire state will be part of MABAS divisions. Neighboring states are also joining, including Missouri, Indiana, Iowa and Kentucky.

MABAS is broken down into "Divisions" Each Division has a Headquarters Dispatch and a Back-up Dispatch. When a department realizes it can not contain an incident alone they contact the local MABAS Division Dispatch and requests a "Box Alarm" Box Alarms have 5 levels, 1 thru 5. The first alarm, usually just called a "Box" typically brings 2 or 3 engines, 1 or 2 trucks, and perhaps some EMS or other specialized equipment. Also, "Chiefs" are assigned. Chiefs (which might actually be Lt.'s, Captains or Deputies) are assigned to various tasks like "Staging", "Rehab", "Safety", or "Sectors". They report to "Command" (who is in overall command of the incident). Command may be in a vehicle with a green flashing light. MABAS has adopted the National Incident Command system to coordinate scenes in an orderly and recognized manner. This allows agencies that may be unfamiliar with each other to work together under a unified command and with common procedures.

When a MABAS Alarm is requested the MABAS Dispatcher will send out Plectron tones of 1082 Hz (1.5 sec.) and 701 Hz (3.5 sec.) on the NIFERN frequency of 154.265 MHz. to set off alert receivers at various fire dispatch centers. These tones are to be used by ALL MABAS Divisions. Dispatch Centers will then listen to the announcement and dispatch their equipment when requested to the scene or to another station on a "Change of Quarters" After the equipment is dispatched and en-route they notify the Division HQ on NIFERN and all further communications are with MABAS. Once a unit is at the scene they report in to Command. Most incidents use a "Staging Area" where responding units will wait until called to a position at the scene.

If the Main Division HQ department can not handle the alarm then the Division Backup will handle it. This occurs sometimes when the dispatch center also handles the department that is stricken, or perhaps has radio difficulties.

154.265 has been designated as the Statewide fire mutual aid channel in late 2001 for Illinois, and will soon be called "IFERN" (Interagency Fire Emergency Radio Network). With this change there has been some changes proposed to the officially recognized nomenclature of frequencies:




PL Tone


IFERN 154.265 210.7 Main Mutual Aid channel




Fireground 830




Fireground 295




Fireground 280




Fireground 790 (Unofficial)

Black 154.2725 94.8 Fireground
Gray 154.2875 136.5 Fireground
Gold 153.8375 91.5 Fireground
IFERN 2 154.3025 67.0 Alternate Mutual Aid Channel



MERCI 340 (South)




MERCI 400 (North)




MERCI 280 (Inter-Hospital)




MERCI 160 (Metro-East)





Most VHF Fire portables have the main dispatch channel as #1 and the very last position as Fireground (Usually 153.830) so that the firefighter can easily find the channels just by turning the channel selector to the stops.

Power output on any Fireground channel should be limited to 10 watts or less to avoid interference between multiple scenes.  All agencies are responsible for making sure they hold current FCC licensees on any frequency they operate on.

The PL's listed are in the progress of being implemented. Eventually they will be set for Receive and Transmit, but for now should only be programmed to transmit only. All ambulances in the state of Illinois are supposed to have 155.340 (PL 210.7) installed.

Other frequencies may often be used as Fireground channels. Listen to 150.775 and 150.805 as well as any VHF fire channel. Sometimes local government channels will be used, as well.

The above has been heard in use by some departments already. Green 4 was intended for use as a Landing Zone Coordination channel for helicopters but that recommendation was not passed, and helicopter operations are suggested to use either a MERCI channel or IREACH. Since aircraft communications travel great distances use of IFERN is not recommended.

There will be many changes to MABAS as a result of the Homeland Security initiatives. RED Center (MABAS Division 3) has been designated the State of Illinois Emergency Operations Center for MABAS operations and will coordinate the state’s Fire/EMS resources in the event of a major event that results in the declaration of a State Disaster. Orland Central Dispatch in Orland Park is the backup.

Due to the rapidly changing list of MABAS Divisions in Illinois and surrounding states I will no longer try to keep updated lists of members and radio frequencies. If you are interested in fire dispatch frequencies here are some links to help out:

CARMA (Chicago Area Radio Monitoring Association) maintains detailed profiles of northern Illinois. These profiles are based on the counties, and can be obtained by any member of the CARMA Yahoo List. For more information go to:

Carma Yahoo Group


If this is not feasible you can email me at and I will send you a copy of the desired county's profile.

For downstate areas the ScanIllinois Yahoo Group has great information.

Check out

For all areas RadioReference is just that. Go to

Some Divisions are more organized than others. Division 3 has a Haz-Mat trailer that is fully equipped to handle most types of materials that are found or transits the area. Division 20 also has specialized response vehicles. Other districts have specialized vehicles or equipment that was purchased thru the Division and used by any department in the Division. Some Divisions have adopted unified numbering schemes. For example, all departments in Division 3 share a numbering plan based upon the one used by RED Center. RED Center is the HQ for the Division and dispatches many of the departments in it.

An agency will be a member of a single Division officially. This is to keep statistics as correct as possible and to assure that equipment rosters are only counted once. Any agency may respond into any other division as need be and members of any nearby Division may respond to a call for assistance.

With the recent expansion of MABAS to areas that have not used 154.265 for Mutual Aid some variations may occur. The south suburbs have historically used 154.280 for Mutual Aid, so not all departments may be able to access 154.265 at this time.

MABAS was started in 1968 by the Elk Grove Fire Department who borrowed Chicago FD's existing Box Card system of fire management and created a system for the suburban area. Most Divisions and departments use the "Incident Management System" to manage fires and incidents. Between this and other MABAS protocols followed departments can work together to make sure that all personnel are accounted for and all act as a single team instead of unfocused individuals. ICS itself is starting to be superceeded by NIMS, the National Incident Management System. This works to eliminate the historic boundaries between Police and Fire by encouraging both to work more closely together, starting with a Unified Command structure. Recent events in the USA, such as the hurricanes in the South and the terror strikes in the East have demonstrated the need to have Unified Command.

Much of the information contained on these pages was obtained from Dave Hudik, Steve Rauter and the members of CARMA and FireNet-Chicago. Please send any updates or corrections to me at so I can forward it on to them. Also, if you wish to use this information for any purpose other than individual knowledge please ask first. Many hours were spent putting this all together by myself, Dave, Steve and FireNet-Chicago. It is only fair that they get acknowledgment for the work involved. Also, please be aware that this page is not official. While the information herein is believed accurate at the time it was written changes occur and errors creep in. I am not a member of MABAS, nor do I speak for any MABAS member.

CARMA is the Chicago Area Radio Monitoring Association, the largest organization of scanner listeners on the country. We have get-togethers every month, with regular meetings on bimonthly Saturdays and informal "Friday Nighters" on bimonthly Fridays. See our web page for dates and details.

What is FireNet? Glad you asked! FireNet-Chicago provides paging services to fire buffs, media, and others interested in Fire responses via alphanumeric pagers. See their web page at for details.

For more information regarding MABAS go to the horses mouth!


There are also several nonprofit organizations that provide canteen service to the area Fire Departments. These volunteers respond to scenes in specially equipped vehicles with hot and cold drinks, food, gloves and other items to assist emergency personnel during long incidents.

Metropolitan Emergency Support Service (MESS).

Racine Fire Bells

These pages were put together by Rich Carlson, N9JIG, with information from many sources, including MABAS Members, Steve Rauter, Dave Hudik, FireNet and the many members of CARMA.

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