Geeking out on fire dispatch has never been easier
Gone are the static-filled shortwave-like radios and crystal-powered scanners; key the mic today and the entire world listens
By Will Wyatt
Once again I find myself in complete awe of technology. Of course being simple by nature, the simplest of things confound me.
I of course am referring to the great strides made in communications technology. When I think back to what used to be considered advanced technology and to where we are now, it is amazing.
Back in the day when the Gamewell system was the mode of communications, it was a technological marvel. For the record, I am still impressed with the simplicity and reliability of the old Gamewell system, which is still used as a back up in a lot of places.
Today we have digital, analog, noise cancellation, mobile computer terminals in the apparatus and mapping software. You can even get calls from some dispatch center sent to your phone in the form of a text message. The list goes on and on.
I don't quite go back to the days of using the telegraph key to communicate, but I do remember when listening to the fire radio wasn't so easy. My first listening device was a Realistic Patrolman series radio. I believe it was called Patrolman 6, so designated because it had 6 bands: AM, FM, UHF, VHF HI, VHF LOW and an aircraft band.
You had to tune into the appropriate channel with the tuning knob. It sounded like some kind of short wave operator with the oscillating squealing sounds.
I would tune in Philadelphia to listen to the fire department. I got to where I knew the companies in different parts of town. I also figured out that when I heard a clacking sound in the background when the dispatchers talked that a box alarm was coming. The clacking was the box being sent out on the Gamewell system.
A problem I routinely encountered was during an extra-alarm fire, a switch to the F2 frequency was made. Once you obtained the frequency, you had to tune the radio as finely as possible so you could set the squelch, which was an art form in itself. Too much squelch and you wouldn't hear anything. It required the touch of a safecracker.
Then one fine day another stunning breakthrough came to be. Yes, scanning technology had arrived. A scanner was a small box with a row of sequential lights that scanned different frequencies for activity.
When radio traffic was detected the scanning process stopped and you could listen to the radio traffic. When the conversation or dispatch was finished the scanner resumed scanning.
What electronic mastermind came up with this amazing device? You could lock out channels you didn't want to hear or scan manually, stopping on a channel you were interested in.
The nucleus of the scanner was the crystal, a small chip-looking thing that was a little smaller than your thumbnail with two prongs on one end. You purchased crystals at the local electronics store for your desired frequency, which was stamped on the crystal.
Naturally, with the only constant being change, the digital scanning breakthrough era arrived. Brilliant! The new scanners came with a keypad on which you entered your desired frequency, thus eliminating the need for crystals.
They even had digital scanners that held up to 200 channels. Two hundred channels — who can listen to 200 channels?
Can you hear me now?
Where is this lesson in fire monitoring going you ask? Well, in today's world, listening has never been easier. You can listen to just about anyplace under the sun on Radioreference.com, among other sites on your computer. I listen when I am writing or working online. Some people listen to music, some to talk radio, I listen to fire dispatches.
I listen to Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, and Buffalo, N.Y., to name a few. Los Angles City is so busy it is insane. Nobody has enough ambulances.
A couple of my favorites are Denver and Pittsburgh. Both places give clear dispatch instructions, repeat the locations multiple times and alert everybody to what is going on. Denver even gives sort of a summary of units and calls that are in progress.
County dispatches are another favorite of mine. Rochester, N.Y. and the counties on Long Island, N.Y., are fun to listen to. You can hear the community fire siren going off in the background during the dispatch.
That is a slice of Americana that is the stuff of Norman Rockwell paintings. The siren goes off atop the firehouse to alert the volunteer firefighters that there is a fire. Can't you see people jumping out of barber chairs and leaving their jobs?
You know, I even have a scanner app on my phone to listen to fire departments. With this comes a stark realization that everybody who picks up a microphone needs to understand: people all over the world are listening.
I have heard some golden moments transmitted. For example, while listening to what I consider a major city, I heard a marvelous exchange.
An EMS supervisor called a medical transport unit at the hospital on the radio and told them they needed to go back in service. They had been at the hospital too long.
Moments later a battalion chief, called the EMS supervisor, and, in so many words, told him that he was the battalion chief and he would in fact determine who was in service and who was not. This escalated to a challenge from one to another inviting the other to step outside.
If I heard this, I am sure other people did too. Mind you, it was great comedy. Everybody that was listening was laughing hysterically I am sure. However, the public doesn't need to hear this sort of thing.
The other night, a major city had set up an incident command system for a large event. In the middle of operations, command called a fire inspector and told him to move his car before it was towed. He had parked in the police chief's parking spot. A lesson in what is really important.
My all time favorite radio transmission goes to a flustered police officer in Beaumont, Texas. This was many years ago with my afore mentioned tunable radio.
A large lumberyard was on fire and the fire was spreading to an adjacent street. The officer called in for assistance. The dispatcher asked the officer what he needed assistance with. His reply was classic: "parked cars and idiots!"
Clear, concise, identified the problems and left no room for misinterpretation.
Let me hear from you.