A one-alarm fire in Joppa. A two-alarm fire on Malvern Road. A three-alarm fire in Staten Island. A four-alarm fire on Washington Avenue. A five-alarm fire in Fresno. A six-alarm fire on Canal Street. A seven-alarm fire in Lower Manhattan. An eight-alarm fire in Haverhill. A nine-alarm fire in Olive Hill. A ten-alarm fire in Brooklyn. An ELEVEN-ALARM fire in Delanco? A TWELVE-ALARM fire in Camden? A THIRTEEN-ALARM FIRE in Philadelphia?? What do the numbers mean? How many alarms can there be? When and where did this term originate? Is this the general terminology across the United States?

What do the numbers mean? As can be expected, the different numbers refer to the different categories of fires, indicating the level of response by local authorities. However, it is not exact. It’s not that one-alarm means X amount of emergency response vehicles required and two-alarm means Y amount of emergency vehicles required, etc. It is true, however, that as the severity of fire increases, the number increases. The initial dispatch is known as the “first alarm,” and subsequent alarms are calls for additional units because the fire has grown and more resources are needed to combat the fire.

Where does this “alarm” system come from? It originates from the tradition of using pull stations to alert fire departments of local fires. A message would be sent to all local fire departments that there was a fire, and it would indicate the location as a number.

For the purposes of showing the varying degrees of the system, the following is a list of the alarm levels used by the New York City Fire Department, followed by a list of the alarm levels used by the Toronto Fire Service:

NYC Fire Department

1st Alarm Assignment: 3 Engine Companies, 2 Ladder Companies, 1 Battalion Chief

Working Fire Assignment: 1 Engine Company, 1 Ladder Company, 1 Squad Company, 1 Rescue Company, 1 Battalion Chief, 1 Division Chief

2nd Alarm Assignment: 5 Engine Companies, 2 Ladder Companies, 2 Battalion Chiefs, 1 Satellite Unit, 1 Recuperation and Care Unit, 1 Tactical Support Unit, 1 Field Communications Unit

3rd Alarm Assignment: 4 Engine Companies, 2 Ladder Companies, 3 Battalion Chiefs, 2 Deputy Chiefs, 1 Mask Service Unit

4th Alarm Assignment: 4 Engine Companies, 2 Ladder Companies, 1 Battalion Chief

5th Alarm Assignment: 4 Engine Companies, 2 Ladder Companies, 1 Assistant Chief, Chief of Operations

Toronto Fire Services

Alarm Level 0: Initial Response

Alarm Level 1: Working Fire Response

Alarm Level 2: 10-13 Emergency Vehicles

Alarm Level 3: 14-17 Emergency Vehicles

Alarm Level 4: 18-21 Emergency Vehicles

Alarm Level 5: 22-25 Emergency Vehicles

Alarm Level 6: 25-29 Emergency Vehicles


Barak Bacharach, SkySaver Content Manager