Fire Service Communications: Is It Time to Change Your Tactical Frequency?

by | February 2, 2018

The tones go off, and just like that we’re on our way to a reported structure fire in a commercial district with lots of dangerous, occupied facilities.

Leaving the station, we see a large dark column of smoke rising rapidly into the sky. Verdugo Fire has a first-alarm response and Los Angeles County Fire sends a commercial response. As the Verdugo battalion chief, I know this will be a challenging incident. I immediately request a second-alarm assignment and provide a staging location. With our tactical frequency assigned, we have over 15 engines, 3 trucks, 2 medic units, a heavy-rescue and two additional battalion chiefs responding—an assignment every firefighter loves!

I’m first-in. Upon arrival, I give an “Academy Award-winning size-up” and deployment of resources. I’m feeling good, real good! Ready to command this large fire. But no one answers my directives—the radio is completely silent!

I give another size-up, not as stellar as the first, but okay. Still no answer. Sweat starts to bead on my forehead. What is going on? Units are arriving on scene. I quickly glance down and it hits me—I’m operating on the wrong tactical frequency! I quickly regroup with another, less-than-stellar size-up. Thankfully, our resources and agencies trained together regularly on fireground policies and procedures. They quickly knock down the fire.

We’ve probably all experienced an incident like this, where a simple mistake can send things spiraling downward. But when I think about that fire, the lesson I take away has less to do with incident management—or radio operations!—and more to do with life.

When things aren’t working for you in your personal and/or professional life, you might simply be operating on the wrong tactical frequency. You might have all the resources lined up, you’re prepared, you’re confident in your abilities. But as you start to shout commands, it’s as though no one hears you. When that happens, it’s easy to conclude that life is unfair, or that others aren’t paying attention to you. In fact, it could be just the opposite—maybe it’s you who aren’t paying attention to them.

All too often many of us self-assign ourselves a tactical frequency designated as WIIFM (What’s In It For Me). We don’t focus on the needs of others, but rather seek only to fulfill our own goals, or give ourselves an advantage. There’s nothing wrong with setting and achieving personal goals. But it’s also important to shift the focus away from yourself and to other people. That’s not something that comes naturally, I know; most people worry about their own plans and don’t look out for the interests of others. They’re concerned with their own life and problems. But this just leads to all of us, on our own radios, each talking on a different channel, with no one listening.

If all you think about is yourself, you’re going to be a pretty miserable person and your life’s “operational periods” (both personally and professionally) will certainly suffer. But if you can switch your focus to serving others, you’ll likely be much happier.

In a recent article called “The 30-Year Incident” I invited you to consider your career as if it were an incident and you are the incident commander (IC). Your life itself is also an “incident.” Imagine running a significant incident focused on only one resource: you. How effective would you be? We know the answer: That incident would be a total loss!

I admit there were many times I ran my own “incident” while focusing only on myself. I missed the needs of people around me who I cared for because I wasn’t tuned in to the right frequency—them. Those times can certainly be considered a total loss in my life.

Change your tactical channel in life and stop being obsessed with getting your own advantage. As the Bible verse goes, “Forget yourself long enough to lend a helping hand to others.” The incident of life will run much smoother, I promise!

SAM DIGIOVANNA is a 35-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department, and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale. He is also a Senior Consultant for Lexipol’s Cordico wellness solution.

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