Detroit Fire Box Alarm Assignments

Dear Nozzlehead: I’m a relatively new member of our fire department. I took the test a few years ago, finally got hired and am definitely enjoying it. I’ve read your column (it’s required reading by our captain) and appreciate your insight and candor. My request may be very simple, but quite honestly, I’m confused as to what constitutes a box alarm and what is a second-, third- and fourth-alarm box? It’s a foreign term in our area. I’m confused by some other terms as well, but “box alarm” is the one I see the most when I’m reading fire magazines and websites.
—Boxed Out in Mississippi
Dear Boxy,
I smiled when I got your letter as I love the fact that we do some things differently in the American fire service. I also hate the fact that we do some things differently in the American fire service. So before I go off on a rant and need to be sedated, let me clarify.
I LOVE the traditions and cultures that don’t lead to us getting jailed, suspended, terminated, sued or killed ... you know, the stupid stuff like this: “It’s always been a tradition to spit in the food of new personnel here at engine 92.” Don’t do that! Or “We never lay a line on THIS engine company unless we can’t hold the fire with tank water.” Don’t do that either!

One of the interesting traditions of the job is how, as you noted, different areas use different terminologies for the same things. The list is huge and I can’t cover it all, so I’ll give you a few examples and then you can travel across North America and figure out the rest of this. For example, what’s the name of that group of firefighters who stands by just in case something goes wrong at a fire? Standby crew? RIT? RIC? RAT? On Deck? FAST team? Yeah, exactly. And what’s a big fire apparatus that pumps water? An engine, wagon, pumper or quint? See.
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Back to boxes. Box alarms started back when there were street pull boxes in most cities, usually on street corners, each box with its own distinctive number. When the box was pulled, a signal (sent via wires across the city) in the fire communications center (telegraph office) punched a ticker tape and rang a bell, and a file system containing a card with a planned response to an incident type for that box number was pulled. In areas with volunteer departments, outdoor fire horns, whistles and air-raid-type sirens sounded the box number very loud and clear!
For example, let’s say a fire alarm box is pulled at Maple and 4th streets, and it is labeled as Box 4-5. The box would automatically transmit that number to the communication center in somewhat of an automatic “Morse code” system that looks like this:
_ _ _ _   _ _ _ _ _        _ _ _ _   _ _ _ _ _       _ _ _ _   _ _ _ _ _        _ _ _ _   _ _ _ _ _
The card for Box 4-5 (in the communications center) would contain the list of apparatus from various nearby fire stations that should be dispatched to the fire. Basically, it’s all about planning before the fire so you’re better prepared when there is a fire. And there will be a fire.
In volunteer communities back in the day, using the above example, the horns, whistle or sirens would “sound” four times, then five times, and often repeat. The volunteers would know exactly where to go to answer the alarm by counting the number of horn blasts. Some communities, such as New Hyde Park, N.Y. still use a very reliable system of pull boxes that, when pulled, activate units as described above—but the alarm is also received in the Nassau County Fire Communications Center, which activates their radios and pagers, too.
Assigning boxes to areas (back then—and today) facilitates the process of getting the right apparatus to the right place on the initial dispatch, and helps eliminate the guesswork of “which department does what” on the fire scene, which sounds like what your department is questioning now.
Actual street fire alarm boxes rarely exist in communities anymore because of phone access; however, the term still exists, as what many communities do is set up “box alarms” for specific geographic areas. It could be a specific building, an intersection, an area of a few blocks or even a few miles. A “box” area is one with a predetermined list of apparatus from various fire stations that will be dispatched to the incident at that location. Box alarms can vary based on time of day, incident type, weather, hydranted areas vs. non-hydranted areas and any other potential situation. A box alarm system can also cover entire states—and even beyond some state borders, such as the progressive and trendsetting Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) of Illinois, which has expanded into all of the surrounding states!
Any area that has not set up a box alarm system, thereby ensuring “the right stuff” on the first-alarm assignment and subsequent additional alarms (without a chief having to say “Have Giggityland send me an engine, have Topsyville send me a ladder truck, have Beltbuckletown send me an engine,” etc.) is like a pilot flying without a flight plan. You may get there, but the time and delays in figuring out how to get there create unfair delays to those actually having the fire.

I can easily state that a fire department with a box alarm system vs. one without a box alarm system has a much greater chance of saving lives, property and making a measurable difference than those that don’t … in so many ways. Hope that helps.
Terminology is great and something I love very much about our profession. Here are a few more examples I think you will enjoy:
•    Strike the box: This means give me a first-alarm assignment. Most of the time.
•    Strike out the box: The fire is under control.
•    Box the still: Upgrade the still alarm.
•    Still alarm: Less than a box—usually two engines, two trucks and a chief. Usually.
•    Worker: A fire that has all of the first-alarm companies involved in fighting the fire, which some people call an “all-hands” fire and others call a “major emergency.”
•    Bagger: An additional alarm. For example, in some areas, a third is called a three-bagger. (Of course in Chicago, that would be called a 3-11, from back in the old street box days.)
•    Yard Breather or Doorway Dancer: A person wearing firefighter bunker gear who always manages to have a problem with their PPE or SCBA and never is the first one to do a task.
•    Tip: It’s the knob, the pipe or, as most know it, the nozzle.
•    Penalty box or bone box: The whaaaambulance, for those who whine when they have to work on it.
•    Food on the stove: Food-burning call. This is the term used in New York, but in Chicago, it’s called a “pot of meat,” even if what’s burning is your asparagus and tofu.

Lastly, a job is usually something you apply for, but in New York, it’s a working fire. But “the job” is belonging to the FDNY or NYPD, such as being “on the job,” but the term may also be used by FDNY for an auto extrication, which is a pin-job … but in Chicago, it’s a pin-in! And in FDNY EMS, a job is an assignment, such as an EMS run. And a run? That’s a call, a detail, an assignment or a fire call … depending.
Thanks for writing! I am more than confident that I have now fully cleared up all of your previous confusion.



FireRescue's fearlessly opinionated Nozzlehead has been the fire service’s go-to advisor since November 2001. His decades of experience in the fire service make him well qualified to offer up 2,000-psi of free-flowing opinion each month on everything from firehouse hazing to freelancing. If you have a fire service question, concern or comment—and are looking for an answer with attitude—send a letter to Nozzlehead c/o FireRescue, 4180 La Jolla Village Drive, Suite 260, La Jolla, California 92037-9142, or e-mail him at

The Detroit Fire Department (DFD) provides fire protection and emergency medical services to the city of Detroit, Michigan, United States.

The Detroit Fire Department currently operates 47 fire companies out of 34 fire stations located throughout the city, with a total sworn personnel complement of 830 firefighters in all ranks. The Detroit Fire Headquarters was once located on Larned Street in Downtown Detroit. On July 8, 2013, the headquarters moved to the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters on 3rd street. The building, a former MGM Grand Casino hosts fire, police, EMS, and additional services.

The Detroit Fire Department responds to approximately 165,000 emergency calls annually, with over 80% being medical emergencies and approximately 9,000 working structural fires.

Recent history

Until December 31, 2013, the Detroit Fire Department was led by Fire Commissioner Donald R. Austin, a former member of the Los Angeles Fire Department and a Detroit native. Austin came to Detroit in May 2011 on the difficult mission to bring change to the Detroit Fire Department. In November 2013 he resigned due to changes in city administration. Austin had kicked off a reform of the department, which will have to be fulfilled by his successor. The new mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, named Jonathan Jackson, a 25-year veteran of the department, and a Second Deputy Fire Commissioner under Austin, as the Interim Fire Commissioner on December 23, 2013. Craig Dougherty, a former member of Engine 50 on the city's East Side and Fire Chief under Austin, became a Second Deputy Commissioner under Jackson. The administration was rounded out by Deputy Commissioner Edsel Jenkins, C.P.A., Second Deputy Commissioner Sydney Zack, LL.M., and Second Deputy Commissioner Orlando Gregory.[1] By the end of March 2014, Commissioner Jackson resigned due to a life-threatening neural disease. On April 8, Deputy Commissioner Jenkins was named as the new Executive Fire Commissioner.

Fire Activity

The city of Detroit has to cope with a large number of fires. The numerous vacant buildings throughout the city, combined with its current economic situation, have resulted in numerous fires on a daily basis. About 85% of the fires that occur daily in Detroit occur in vacant homes and buildings. In 2011 alone, the DFD responded to over 9,000 working structural fires.

A large number of these fires are believed to be "incendiary" (or arson), far above the national average of about 7.8[2]%. There are, however, no accurate statistics for determining the arson rate in Detroit due to the fact that only a fraction of the fires can be investigated by the limited resources of the DFD Arson Unit. Only fire scenes which have been investigated can be ruled as incendiary or arson fires. Those fires which have not been investigated must be classified as "undetermined" unless an investigation is completed.

It should be noted that an "Incendiary Fire" is a technical definition for "a fire that is deliberately set with the intent to cause a fire to occur in an area where the fire should not be".[3] "Arson" is and a statutory definition for a criminal offense. There are occasions where a fire may be "incendiary", but not meet the threshold of "arson".


Rank structure

Below is the rank structure of the Detroit Fire Department.[4]

  • Executive Fire Commissioner
  • First Deputy Commissioner
  • Second Deputy Commissioner
  • Chief of Department
  • Deputy Chief
  • Senior Chief
  • Battalion Chief
  • Captain (Capt.)
  • Senior Lieutenant (Lt.)
  • Lieutenant (Lt.)
  • Sergeant (Sgt.)
  • Fire Engine Operator (FEO.)
  • Firefighter Driver (FFD.)
  • Firefighter (FF.)
  • Trial Firefighter (TFF.)


The Detroit Fire Department is currently divided into 10 divisions of operations: Administration, Apparatus, Communications, Community Relations, Emergency Medical Services(EMS), Firefighting/Fire Suppression, Fire Marshal, Medical, Research and Development, and Training Academy.[5]

Emergency Medical Services

The Detroit Fire Department operates a separate EMS Division and as of 2015 Detroit Fire Fighters are now trained medical first responders and have the ability to handle patient care until EMS arrives.

The EMS division operates with limited manpower. As a result, many calls are handled by DFD until a unit is available. The availability of EMS units is often compromised due to the amount of calls in a city which has a lot of violence, as well as the breaking down of the EMS rigs due to age, mileage, and lack of proper maintenance. Thanks to Mayor Bing's collaboration with the business community, Roger Penske sponsored 23 new ambulances for the department, which were put into service in the summer of 2013.

In September 2013, AED devices were put in service on the fire apparatuses as a first step into performing life support to citizens as first responders.

Fire station locations and apparatus

As of December 2013, there are a total of 34 fire stations in the city of Detroit, including the Fire Headquarters, organized into 8 battalions. Each battalion is commanded by a battalion chief per shift.[6]

Engine Ladder Medic Special Chief Battalion Location
Engine 1 1 115 W. Montcalm @ Park Ave.
Engine 9 Ladder 6 Medic 21 1 3787 E. Lafayette St. @ Mt. Elliott St.
Engine 17 Ladder 7 Chief 5 5 6100 2nd Ave. @ Burroughs St.
Engine 27 Ladder 8 Medic 19 Chief 7 7 4700 W. Fort St. @ Summit St.
Engine 29 7 7600 W. Jefferson Ave @ Solvay St.
Engine 30 Medic 3 4 16543 Meyers Rd. @ Florence St.
Engine 32 Medic 23 Chief 6 6 11740 E. Jefferson @ Hart
Engine 33 Ladder 13 7 1041 Lawndale St. @ W. Lafayette Blvd.
Engine 34 2 6345 Livernois Ave @ Walton St.
Engine 35 Medic 20 5 136 Kenilworth St. & Woodward Ave.
Engine 39 Medic 1 5 8720 14th St. @ Blaine St.
Engine 40 Ladder 17 Medic 10 8 13939 Dexter Ave. @ Ewald Cir.
Engine 41 Medic 14 6 5010 Rohns St. @ E. Warren Ave.
Engine 42 Ladder 21 Medic 2 2 6330 Chicago W. @ Livernois Ave.
Engine 44 Ladder 18 Chief 8 8 35 W. 7 Mile Rd. @ John R. St.
Engine 46 9 10101 Knodell St. @ Grace St.
Engine 48 Medic 11 7 2300 S. Fort St. @ Downing St.
Engine 50 Ladder 23 Medic 15 Chief 9 9 12981 Houston Whittier St. @ Gratiot Ave.
Engine 52 Ladder 31 9 5029 Manistique St. @ E. Warren Ave.
Engine 53 Ladder 25 Medic 17 4 15121 Greenfield Rd. @ Fenkell Ave.
Engine 54 Ladder 26 Medic 4 4 16825 Trinity St. @ Grand River Ave.
Engine 55 Ladder 27 Medic 5 Chief 2 2 18140 Joy Rd. @ Southfield Rd.
Engine 56 Medic 16 8 18601 Ryan Rd. @ Hilldale St.
Engine 57 2 13960 Burt Rd. & Schoolcraft Ave.
Engine 58 Medic 24 Squad 6 9 10801 Whittier Ave. @ Lakepoint St.
Engine 59 Medic 22 Squad 1 Chief 4 4 17800 Curtis St. @ Southfield Rd.
Engine 60 9 19701 Hoover St. @ Manning St.
Ladder 14 Medic 12 6 2200 Crane St. @ Brinket Ave.
Ladder 20 Medic 6 Squad 2 1 463 W. Alexandrine St. @ Cass Ave.
Ladder 22 2 6830 McGraw Ave @ Martin Rd.
Squad 3 6 1820 E. Grand Blvd @ Moran St.
Medic 7 Squad 4 5 1697 W. Grand Blvd. @ McGraw Ave.
Medic 18 Squad 5 8 18236 Livernois Ave. @ Curtis St.
Medic 8 Tac. 2, Haz-Mat. 1, Decon. 1 Chief 1 1 3080 Russell St. @ Wilkins St.

Budget cuts

As of January 2011, in an effort to cut costs, the city of Detroit is considering privatizing the Fire Department's EMS Division.

As of June 26, 2012 the Chief of Department announced the permanent closure of 14 fire companies due to budget cuts (10 engines, 4 ladders). In 2013, 1 engine and 7 ladders were "browned out." The following companies are now "browned out":

  • Ladder 19 - 10700 Shoemaker St. & French Rd. (2013)
  • Ladder 28 - 10325 Linwood St. & Calvert (2013)
  • Ladder 30 - 17475 Mt. Elliot Ave. & Davison. (2013)

In addition to the permanent company closings, some units have been put out of service daily due to manpower cutbacks. 200 demotions have been made. Also, the standard response to a structural fire was cut down from a 3 engines and 1 ladder response to a 2 engines and 1 ladder response.[7]

By 2014 the fire department was using improvised tools made from soda pop cans, doorbells, door hinges, pipes, etc. to give alerts within stations.[8]


Response guidelines

Alarm Type Alarm Level Companies Assigned
Still Alarm 1st Alarm Assignment 1 Engine or 1 Engine, 1 Ladder
Box Alarm 1st Alarm Assignment 3 Engines, 1 Ladder, 1 Squad, 1 Chief
Commercial Box Alarm 1st Alarm Assignment 4 Engines, 2 Ladders, 1 Squads, 2 Chiefs
2nd Alarm Fire 2nd Alarm Assignment 3 Engines, 2 Ladders (1 Platform - Ladder 7), 1 Squad, 1 Chief, Car 203 (Senior Chief), 1 Medic unit, 1 Medic Supervisor
3rd Alarm Fire 3rd Alarm Assignment 3 Engines, 1 Ladder, 1 Squad, 1 Chief, 1 Deputy Chief (Car 201 or Car 202), Mobile Command Unit
Motor Vehicle Accident/Elevator Rescue Special Assignment 1 Engine, 1 Squad, 1 Medic Unit
Confined-Space Rescue Special Assignment 1 Engine, 1 Squad, 1 Chief, 1 Medic Unit
Bomb Threat Special Assignment 4 Engines, 1 Ladder, 1 Squad, 1 Chief, Haz-Mat. Unit, 1 Medic Unit
Police Assist/Access Special Assignment 1 Ladder or Squad, 1 Chief

See also


  1. ↑ "." Retrieved on January 4, 2014.
  2. ↑ Source: NFPA Fire Analysis and Research Statistical Reports, June 2014
  3. ↑ NFPA 921-Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigation, 2014 Edition.
  4. "FAQs | Fire Department | City of Detroit Departments". Retrieved 2014-06-29. 
  5. "About the Fire Department | City of Detroit Departments |". Retrieved 2013-12-27. 
  6. ↑
  7. ↑ v
  8. ↑ Baldas, Tresa. "Detroit fire department has alert system made of pop cans, doorbells" (Archive). Detroit Free Press. September 6, 2014. Retrieved on October 25, 2015.

External links

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 12/4/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.

The former Fire Headquarters, located in Downtown.

The quarters of Engine 17, Ladder 7, and Chief 5 at 6100 2nd St.

A DFD Captain overseeing a fire in 1978.

Fireboat Curtis Randolph

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