The renewed threat of terrorism has galvanized the fire protection industry across the country, and industrial fire departments are no exception. For industrial fire departments, the transition from a private service agency to a regional mutual support team member has become essential. No fire department, industrial or otherwise, can continue to operate today in comfortable, cautious or competitive isolation.
An example of this increased mutual aid involves the industrial fire department serving Abbott Laboratories in the city of North Chicago, Ill. This suburb, 35 miles north of the nation's third largest city, has seen a mutual aid program develop between three independent fire departments that reside within or near city boundaries.
The close cooperation of these fire departments is not new. The industrial fire department at Abbott Laboratories, North Chicago's own municipal fire department and the federal government fire department at the Great Lakes Naval Training Base have shown their commitment to interdepartmental cooperation for more than 10 years.
What began as a casual, respectful cooperation based on proximity has become a three-department partnership united by a common belief: When it comes to ensuring the protection of life and property, there's power in numbers.
Inventory of strengths
Since September, the departments have been working on an automatic aid plan to strategically increase their level of cooperation to bolster disaster prevention and preparedness. These efforts have revealed that each fire department brings core strengths and vulnerabilities to the table. Over time the departments have learned to rely on each other's readiness, expertise and equipment. While department budgets may remain separate, expertise is always shared freely.
Abbott's industrial fire department has extensive experience in handling hazmat and chemical fires. The department recently acquired aindustrial foam pumper custom-designed to carry a 750-gallon reservoir of 3% foam. In addition, the Abbott staff brings to the mix their firefighting experience within an industrial complex, which can be a less predictable environment than that of a residential emergency.
The Great Lakes Naval Training Base Fire Department staff has received Occupational Safety and Health Administration technician-level certification for the handling of hazardous materials, yet the department readily points to Abbott as the chemical fire and foam expert for the team. The key benefit offered by Great Lakes to the team is its proven expertise in handling structural fires.
Of course, the North Chicago Fire Department also has a track record for handling structural emergencies. In case of a fire in North Chicago, the Great Lakes Fire Department goes on immediate standby and will respond to a second call when needed. The municipal fire department also supplies both Abbott and Great Lakes with full paramedic and Advanced Life Support services. If there's a medical emergency at the Abbott plant, the North Chicago EMS team responds to the call.
Mutual aid concerns
To date, incidents involving mutual aid between two or more of the departments have been limited to fighting structural or vehicle fires, investigating potentially hazardous chemical spills, and answering emergency medical calls. The fact that the departments have been able to work cooperatively through these incidents is due to efficient pre-planning, communication and increasingly effective firefighting procedures. Of course, the future calls for improved preparation, regardless of historical success.
The proposed automatic aid plan is anchored by a joint mission statement that reads: “Through our cooperative efforts and working as a team, we will be able to protect life and property from the threat of fires, natural or unnatural disasters, and medical emergencies. This will be achieved through pre-planning, public education, incident management, the appropriate implementation and application of new technology, and continuous training.”
Monthly tabletop meetings are considered the foundation for the cooperative efforts named in the mission statement. At these meetings the three chiefs and selected attendees strategize how they can improve operational efficiencies to best protect life and property while facing the potential threat of terrorist activity.
For example, in the interest of both pre-planning and effective incident management, the Great Lakes and North Chicago fire departments are familiarizing themselves with the Abbott plant site and targeting high-hazard areas at the plant. The implementation of a mobile data management system for the combined geographic areas is also imminent.
Each of the three departments also plays an active role with public awareness and fire and life safety education in their communities. Public education efforts will continue at every level, whether it's a Great Lakes firefighter addressing a group of Boy Scouts, a North Chicago fire official giving an informal update to city officials, or the Abbott fire department leading thousands of Abbott employees during the company's semi-annual emergency evacuation drills.
For Abbott, its fire safety expertise and cross-training efforts allow the company to demonstrate its commitment to the community of North Chicago. Industrial fire departments across the country looking for a better way to be good corporate citizens are encouraged to make a commitment to mutual emergency response, as it represents a real and significant value to the community.
Abbott gives back
The industrial member of the mutual aid team, Abbott Laboratories, is a global, broad-based health care company that discovers, develops and manufactures pharmaceutical and medical products.
At its North Chicago manufacturing plant, Abbott manages the storage, transportation and use of the many chemicals necessary for product development and manufacturing. Ensuring the safety of the company's employees and the surrounding community has always been a priority for Abbott. The company has a strong commitment to prevention and protection against potential disasters, which could range from small container leaks and chemical spills to destructive, costly fires or explosions.
In compliance with OSHA regulations, Abbott fields an emergency response team at its North Chicago plant and another at its corporate headquarters, known locally as Abbott Park, about three miles away. More than 3,900 employees work around the clock at Abbott's 220-acre North Chicago plant amid heavy industrial and chemical processing equipment and chemical tank farms. The emergency response team is located at the plant and is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The company has six highly trained emergency response team professionals who are supported by the 130 employee volunteers who make up the Abbott Laboratories Emergency Response Team. (See sidebar, page 66.) ALERT personnel are trained to respond to a wide range of medical emergencies, chemical spills, fires, severe weather conditions and other natural disasters, as well as the potential threat of terrorist activity.
Because of Abbott's expertise with foam and chemical emergencies, the fire department is also the largest foam resource for all 28 fire departments located within Lake County.
In the Navy — and the suburbs
The municipal member of this special mutual aid team is the North Chicago Fire Department, which serves 38,000 residents, including those who live on the naval base. The community is currently experiencing a significant surge in building and development, and the team remains aware of the community's expansion, and subsequent expanding life and fire safety needs.
Chief Lawrence Stickler commands the municipality's two fire stations and 31-person emergency response team. Because Abbott doesn't have comprehensive, on-site emergency medical staff and equipment, the North Chicago EMS team provides full paramedic and ALS capabilities to the plant. North Chicago's EMS team also provides mutual aid to Great Lakes Naval Training Base as needed.
About 90% of North Chicago's calls are for paramedic services, which is why the department runs three ambulances and requires each North Chicago firefighter to be a paramedic as well. North Chicago brings considerable expertise in fighting structural fires to the team, as well as the services of its three response vehicles, including an 85-foot ladder truck.
On an average day, the Great Lakes Naval Training Base in North Chicago hosts about 30,000 people, including residents, civilian employees, active duty military and navy recruits. A civilian firefighting staff, led by Fire Chief and Base Disaster Preparedness Officer David S. Biondi, staffs the base's three fire stations. The Great Lakes Fire Department has a 100-foot aerial ladder platform, a 65-foot Telesqurt, two reserve engines and other emergency response vehicles. The delivery of a new 100-foot aerial ladder platform with basket is anticipated later this year.
Biondi's fire department staff also brings to the team established strength in fighting structural fires. This isn't surprising when you consider that the consolidated population on the base generates more than 3,000 emergency calls a year. Along with cross-training with Abbott and North Chicago firefighters, the firefighters at Great Lakes also assist at the base's two naval firefighting schools.
While government fire departments have always performed the same fire prevention and emergency response functions as a municipal force, the fire department employees have typically maintained local security by remaining isolated to the base they serve. According to Biondi, the events of Sept. 11 put a quick end to that kind of isolation. He now meets regularly with Stickler and Rossetti to discuss procedures for increasing the already substantial level of cooperation between the team members.
Other cooperative efforts
While the three fire departments have joined forces on drills at the Abbott facility and have routinely organized tabletop simulations for building basic firefighting skills, they're now scheduling intensive interdepartmental cross-training on a quarterly basis.
The proposed automatic aid plan will include cross-training exercises and tabletop drills designed jointly by the three fire chiefs and implemented by the chiefs and their respective training officers. Examples of cross-training exercises on the schedule include hazmat, water diversion, fire suppression systems, confined-space rescue, high-angle rescue and even open water rescue involving the Great Lakes dive team.
Firefighters from Great Lakes, North Chicago and Abbott have already participated in a weeklong program involving both classroom and hands-on training on Abbott's newest pumper. This training program familiarized firefighters with full pumper operations, including pump transfer and pumping procedures, driver operating procedures and hose attachment from other trucks.
Interdepartmental cross-training is an important activity that hones skills, such as aerial ladder truck operations and combustible liquid firefighting, while building mutual trust and camaraderie. As a result of cross-training and cooperative spirit, the firefighters from Abbott, North Chicago and Great Lakes now know and respect each other as team players and have expressed an increased awareness of their co-workers during emergency situations.
This cooperation was a natural extension of how the departments have always operated. For example, back-to-back call response and support have been the norm for these departments through MABAS, the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System used by municipal fire departments throughout northeast Illinois.
[Ed.: See “Massive undertaking,” Sept. 2000, available at <www.firechief.com>.]
Each of the three departments is prepared to support a request for mutual aid, to assume the role of incident commander for a second call and to request aid when needed. Steady communication flow is made possible through handheld portables, the MABAS radio system or cell phone.
Cooperation continues outside of the response arena. The fire chiefs who command the Abbott, North Chicago and Great Lakes departments also are strongly involved in county- and statewide fire safety initiatives, including the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association and the Lake County Specialized Response Team. Whether the issue involves cross-training, the countywide distribution and sharing of resources, or tabletop exercises for improving emergency medical response times, each chief believes that the power behind successful fire prevention, public safety and anti-terrorist procedures is the ability to work effectively as a team.
To that end, it should also be mentioned that the question of rank among the chiefs is one that generates little to no concern. When it comes to emergency response, the incident commander is from the first fire department to arrive on the scene. When it comes to cross-training and monthly meetings, leadership simply is delegated to the chief of the department hosting the event. That way, debates over authority aren't allowed to interfere with meeting team goals.
How-tos for municipal chiefs
Individual fire departments will always have a community that is viewed as their primary responsibility by the people who sign the paychecks. It has been fortunate that the departments on this team have had, and continue to have, the full support of those they protect.
A fire chief can generate management, political and community buy-in as the department gradually becomes a member of a more comprehensive fire safety alliance. No matter what the obstacles, it must be communicated that there's no longer any upside to operating as a silo, when a more cooperative, global perspective that facilitates knowledge transfer and skill-set training can better preserve public safety.
Here are some recommendations:
- Start slowly and have realistic expectations. It takes time to build trust, and it takes trust to build an effective mutual aid program.
- Take small steps together, and lots of them. Plan to do some cross-training. Socialize. Spending time together will foster kinship among firefighters who may eventually rely on each other in critical situations.
- Build friendships. You'll need to map out real relationships, not just draw some fancy new mutual response plan on paper.
- Leave turf issues behind. It's natural for people to want to protect their authority and their property. Come to the table ready to look at issues with a team-player perspective.
- Learn together how to create an effective team. Devising mutual response procedures and disaster preparedness plans will require a level of cooperation that may challenge normal comfort levels. Learn from those who have gone on this path before. Share information and interesting articles on the subject. Bring in a third-party expert.
- Communicate. Hold monthly meetings. Plan tabletop drills. Send e-mail. Pick up the phone and check in. Encourage interdepartmental dialogue.
- Take advantage of core strengths. Few fire departments can be prepared and equipped for every eventuality. Learn what each fire chief and each department brings to the table and instill new processes that call on each other's skills while providing protective solutions for each other's vulnerabilities.
- Learn from your mistakes and celebrate your victories. Recognize the hazardous and the heroic. Hold awards banquets every year.
- Let your communities know what you are doing. Have the local newspaper tell your story, and stress how your actions are raising fire safety levels for the people and businesses you serve.
- Encourage further cooperation. Ask questions and share what you learn with other fire chiefs. Speak up at association meetings.
For municipal fire chiefs looking to build a bridge with fire departments operated by an industrial corporation or housed at a government facility, it's best to start slow and work on building trust. It's also essential to instill in each participating fire department and its personnel an attitude that promotes teamwork.
Sam Rossetti has been the fire chief at the Abbott Laboratories North Chicago Plant since 1995. With 25 years of experience in the firefighting industry, Rossetti has served the past 12 years with Abbott. He is an active member of the, the Lake County Fire Chiefs and the National Fire Protection Agency. Rossetti is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, with his degree focusing on public relations and business management.
Industrial volunteers on ALERT
The Abbott Laboratories Emergency Response Team is no ordinary team. Composed of Abbott employees who volunteer their time, the ALERT team boasts a blend of civilians from virtually every area of the company. The 130-person team, 25% of whom are women, includes engineers, electricians, mechanics, lab technicians, operations managers, administrative assistants and other types of company employees.
With a mission statement “to prevent and reduce personal injuries and property losses caused by fires, explosions, chemical spills and releases,” Abbott's on-call ALERT members receive no less than four hours of training per month. The training exercises they endure are not for the meek.
Many participants work with Emery & Associates to receive technician-level OSHA certification for hazmat. Some members have traveled to Refinery Terminal Fire Company Training Academy in Corpus Christi, Texas, to take a rigorous classroom and hands-on training course that includes interior, exterior and combustible liquid firefighting and confined-space rescue. ALERT staff members also receive training as incident commanders. The team is equipped and trained to use specialized emergency equipment such as fire engines, trailers for hazmat and confined-space rescue, and the command van.
There are also six unscheduled field exercises and one large-scale drill each year, events that are supported by neighboring fire departments such as Great Lakes Naval Training Base and North Chicago. ALERT team members may find themselves participating in a mock confined-space rescue or handling a “hazardous” chemical spill, or they may respond to an activated alarm that takes alert staff to a building filled with smoke. The purpose of these exercises is to build further understanding of their roles and responsibilities in various emergency conditions.
Having such a well-trained, on-call emergency response team on Abbott premises 24 hours a day, seven days a week is an obvious benefit to Abbott employees and the company as a whole. In case of a large-scale emergency affecting Abbott's North Chicago plant, the benefits expand to the affected communities.
ALERT staff members are recruited through various employee education programs at the company and the distribution of an informational pamphlet. Abbott's emergency response team members are compensated annually for their time and service and are recognized at an annual banquet. As proof of employee dedication to ALERT, it's not uncommon for members to be recognized for over 15 years of service on the ALERT staff.