Thursday, December 15, 2011


For the first time in a bajillion years, my agency does not transmit station tones over the radio when dispatching a call. Personally, I think that the tones may come back at some point in the future, but I could be wrong about that. It wouldn't be the first time.

For quite some time, our agency has been switching over to the Westnet First-in Station Alerting System. In a nutshell, the Westnet system sends the alert information through the hard wire communication system rather than over the air. This allows more information to be sent, faster and without tying up air time. The increased amount of information is processed in a small computer located in the station and allows for a high degree of customization of the dispatch information. The voice information is still sent out over the air as well as over the hard wire system.

The transition process started with the construction of a new station, then was expanded when several stations were remodeled. When additional stations were built, they were equipped with the new systems, a few more remodels  and a grant allowed all of the stations to be brought on-line.

The transition process was not without problems, integration between the new and the old did not always go smoothly. Some of the issues were hardware, some were personnel. As we control neither, resolution was not always easy. The completion of the install should eliminate most problems once the new procedures have been learned.

Firefighters love the First-in system as it allows them to customize how they receive the call. For example, each dorm room as an adjustable volume control and can be programmed to activate by unit rather than by station. As most of our stations have individual dorms rooms, each room will now be programmed to be alerted to sound when the individual unit is dispatched. The truckies will not be awakened when the squad is sent to pick up that pissy wino at three AM.

The system also includes a multi-colored lighting module that can be programmed to light a different  color by unit. When the engine is sent, a red LED light segment illuminates, when the squad goes a blue segment lights up the truck gets green and the chief is signaled by yellow. The system does a bunch of other stuff which I won't go into here - it is a remarkable system, one that I enjoyed using.

Where I think there may be an issue, is when units are out in the field, monitoring a radio or HT. Most of us are programmed to recognize our station tones and therefore can tell the difference between an incident and routine traffic while focused on other tasks such as training or inspections. We could hear our station tone as well as the ambulance company's and the tones of neighboring stations. The tones were usually broadcast at a louder volume than the voice, which allowed us to easily filter routine traffic from dispatches.

Under the old system, a call was pre-alerted, the tones were sent and then the dispatch information was broadcast. It went something like this:

"Thirteen, AMR medical aid."

A pause of a few seconds.

"Beep beeeeeeeep, beep beeeeeeeeep." (these tones were significantly louder than the voice information)

 Another pause, maybe a second or so, depending on what else the dispatcher had going.

"Attention engine 13, AMR - 2455 Corrigan way, 2-4-5-5 Corrigan way with a cross street of Brubaker lane. This will be at Dingleberry's market, a medical aid for a fall victim. Map page 78 D-4"

Under the new broadcast procedure, the pre-alert and tones were replaced by three short beeps, followed by the voice dispatch:

"Beep beep beep."

"Attention engine 13, AMR - 2455 Corrigan way, 2-4-5-5 Corrigan way with a cross street of Brubaker lane. This will be at Dingleberry's market, a medical aid for a fall victim. Map page 78 D-4"

Obviously, the incident will get out much faster and the quality of the dispatch information that gets into the station will be much improved.  In the field, who knows?

I think that losing the tones over the radio will cause a few calls to be missed as the three short beeps are generic, not station specific and will get lost in the clutter of radio traffic. That alone will not cause the tones to be brought back, another factor will likely be more instrumental in their return.

It will be far more difficult for the day chiefs to differentiate fire calls from the more routine medical calls. The string of tones for multiple station responses are no longer available, all calls sound the same - whether for a lock-out or for a structure fire. The chiefs are likely to miss a few calls , especially when they are engrossed in their work. If this becomes a big enough issue, the old station tones will be broadcast along with the new First-In system.

I loved the First-In alerting system, but I relied upon the tones when in the field. It no longer matters to me, but others relied upon the tones as well. It will be interesting to see if they will be missed enough to return them to the dispatch process.

Only time will tell.

Thanks for reading,


  1. We use Westnet as well and continue to broadcast tones over the air. We don't, however, use unit or station specific tones. We use tones based on response type [single unit calls (wires, BLS, etc), multiple unit calls (MVA, ALS calls, smells and bells) and then box alarms]. Combined with the CAD notifications, we don't miss anything when we are out on the road. Our ears are just accustomed to hearing the tones and paying attention.

  2. Joe - That's one of the really nice things of Westnet, it is highly programmable. When I think of some of the station alerts that I had to listen to in the past, I still jump in my skin!

    Thanks for the post!

  3. When I first started, my county would test ALL the tones in the county (37 departments!) weekly, on Monday nights. They would transmit the beeper and house siren tones for all 37 volunteer stations in order, and then ask each station to acknowledge reception of the tones. The whole process took about 30 minutes, and considerably longer if there were any incidents in progress.

    They did away with that procedure in the late 1990's. We still dispatch via tone activation, but many departments (mine included) have added text paging for cell phones in various formats as an adjunct. The text paging is a little erratic, since it depends on the cellular system, and I'm sure we've all had experiences where a text gets "lost in the ether" and suddenly resurfaces hours or days later. For the most part, though, they come through within a minute or so, and it's handy to have the call location and dispatch info right there on your phone's screen in case you need to re-check as you get into the rig or arrive on-scene.

  4. We went to alpha-numeric paging a few years ago, which eliminated individual station tones. The pagers get all the info that the dispatcher speaks over the air, only alert for your station, and alert prior to the dispatcher speaking. The chief officers' pagers are programmable and can get only pages for the guy wearing them or all pages for the department, so they have the opportunity to see "what's going on". Very few calls have been missed in the years we've had this system.

  5. NYEMT - 30 minutes! That's a long time for a radio system check! When I first started, each unit was checked at shift change (about 20 units) but it only took a few minutes. I can see a new procedure coming for the chief's - who knows what that will look like.

    Cap11C - I'm sure that any ill effects from this change will be addressed on way or another and few calls will be missed by us as well.

    Thanks for the comments!

  6. Well, the advantage to that system was that someone had to be at the station to respond to the quick-call, so Monday nights by default were when rig checks, maintenance, and training were done. It was also the best time to set up meetings with other chiefs, or get hold of someone from another department, with whom you hadn't been able to get in touch...odds were, there would be someone at the station on a Monday night. I kind of miss it.

  7. So Capt, how is your radio set up for channels? It's reading like all dispatches and regualr radio traffic is on 1 channel. Is that correct?

  8. Firelady - No, we have a total of 14 channels (i think). Dispatch and limited non-incident traffic is on Channel 1, command is on 2 and on channel 3 when 2 is dedicated to an incident.

    Voice of the initial dispatch is also sent out on channel two just in case someone forgets to switch their radio back to 1 after an incident.

    4 through 9 are tacs, 10 is a joint PD/FD repeated channel that we use for incidents where we are setting up a unified command with PD and also for when we need repeated routine non-incident communication.

    11-13 are non repeated clones of channels 1-3. 14 is for RIC.

    We have a few more that are for special uses and for future needs.

    Channels - We got 'em!

  9. That sounds awesome to have the call go out over both of your main channels.

    Here, we get dispatched on one channel (no station tones, but we do get a loud clear tone to get our attention), and everything else goes to channel 2. 3-12 are our TACs, with 13, 14, and 15 being hospital (never used anymore), fire command, and off-repeater talk around. On A, B, and C banks, Channel 1 & 16 are main dispatch. It was done in case of emergency, just spin the channel knob to stop and give your mayday. It'll always be heard.

    We have access to plenty of other channels, but very few folks have bothered to learn how to switch the radios over.

  10. Firelady - Sounds like you got channels too! Your "loud clear tone" sounds like our short three beeps - mainly an attention getter. We too have some folks that could use some currency training on radios. Sometimes the rarely used channels get forgotten about.

    Thanks for the comment.

  11. Hey, Schmoe. I'm a dispatcher and I read this post with interest as we recently went to WestNet as well. We have 1 channel for dispatches (with in-progress alarm traffic being sent to another channel after dispatch) so 90% of activity on the channel is for an incoming alarm. We alert prior to voice dispatch with two beeps.

    My question is, can WestNet be programmed to only activate station tones under certain circumstances? For example, only if unit is showing an In Quarters status or only be activated by the console doing the primary dispatching? We have it set up to set off tones, from any console any time a unit assigned to that station gets added to the call, whether assigned on initial dispatch, or added later as a back up unit. Even units being diverted or swapping calls while already on the road.

    This causes the tones to go off in the station A LOT for units that aren't even there or have already acknowledged receipt of the alarm on the radio. Needless to say, the people still in quarters hear the tones go off constantly for alarms that usually aren't for them (and at night getting woken several times for no reason).

    I'd love to know if there is a way to tweak WestNet to activate station tones only when needed.

  12. Fire and Photo - Ya know, I really don't know as my knowledge of the system is limited to what I could control in the remote module. The system had far greater capabilities than we used, but i am sure that more options mean more money.

    That money thing was always a limiting factor for us.

    Thanks for the comment.