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Who We Are

A subsidiary of the California Fire Chief’s Association, the Communications Section is devoted to assisting in, and providing leadership for, the continued advancement of Fire Service Communications in California while better serving the citizens of the State, and in providing its membership with an opportunity to participate in and contribute to the enhancement of Fire Service Communications through professionalism and standardization of training throughout the State of California.

Our Objectives

-to provide a collective source of information in the field of fire service communications-to provide a means for the exchange of ideas and methods in fire service communications

-to remain current with technical and legislative changes that affect fire communications:

-to provide training or assist in the training of fire communications personnel

-to provide information and input to other communications related organizations

-to develop standards of professionalism in the field of fire service communications

-to provide a medium for exchange of information and ideas and promote cooperation among the agencies charged with fire service communications

-to promote standardization in all aspects of fire service communications.

What’s Happening

The Communications Section is working with the State Fire Marshal’s Office to develop a curriculum for a state-wide standard of proficiency for Fire Service Communications. We have developed lesson plans for dispatch training, and have hosted training classes for Basic Fire Dispatch,Emergency Medical Dispatch, the Incident Command System (ICS) and Incident Dispatcher. We monitor and promote relevant legislation. We will continue to be proactive in promoting, developing, and providing training for fire service communications and any related areas that affect the profession.

Our History

Excerpts from an article written by Randall Larson.

Emerging out of what used to be a highly technical oriented section of the CFCA that had become inactive during the 1970’s, the Communications Section was revitalized by Chuck Berdan, Training Officer for Sacramento Regional Fire/EMS Communications, and Nicole Pianalto, a supervisor for Stanislaus County Emergency Dispatch. Recognizing the need for training, Berdan and Pianalto were determined to organize a group that could actively pursue standardized training for fire dispatchers.

A meeting was held in Stockton in September, 1990, attended by dispatch training representatives from ten northern California fire agencies.   Originally designated the “Fire Communications Training Officers Group,” the newly formed organization decided it would be beneficial to become affiliated with an existing organization to help gain recognition for their goals. Knowing that the CFCA once had a communications section that had been inactive since 1988, the group decided to seek authorization from the parent organization to reactivate it.   Approval was received in January, 1991, and the Communications Section was resurrected. An organizational meeting was held, by-laws were written and an executive board established, electing Berdan as President, Pianalto as Vice President, and Jennifer Glass (San Ramon Valley FPD) as Secretary/Treasurer.

“The overall consensus of our first meeting was that training in fire communications was scarce and much needed,” said Berdan, now Assistant Chief for Sacramento Regional. “Not so many years ago, the job of fire dispatcher was either an entry-level firefighter, a firefighter on ‘light duty,’ or even a police dispatcher who ‘also does fire.’ The scope of the job has exploded since those days. Now the job of fire dispatcher is beginning to be viewed as a profession, requiring skills and knowledge that may take years to develop.”

The original Communications Section was a technical committee – the new group was determined to support the dispatcher through improved training.  Due to the length of the state, the CFCA had traditionally split sections into northern and southern divisions. The original Communications Section had been a northern group with no southern counterpart, and the reactivated Section maintained the split. Berdan met with Southern California fire communications trainers and encouraged them to establish their own Division. Von Beals (Los Angeles County Fire) spearheaded the movement and the Southern Division was launched in 1992.

Both groups have worked with their member agencies to develop a consistent fire communications curriculum and career path for fire dispatchers. “Our original goal was to work with the State Fire Marshall’s Office to develop a training program for dispatchers similar to what they have for firefighters,” said Berdan. “Through a program called CSFTES (California State Fire Education Training System), a new firefighter can be given a flowchart which shows all the courses that he needs to take, from Firefighter 1 all the way through Chief Fire Officer. What Nicole & I envisioned at the time was to achieve the same thing for dispatchers.”

Berdan wrote to then-State Fire Marshal James McMullen in February, 1991, proposing the Communications Section be allowed to develop a curriculum of learning and a career training path for fire dispatchers. “Standardized training for fire dispatchers is non-existent,” he wrote. “Each agency has used their more experienced dispatchers to train new ones. Even the training within an agency can be different – each trainer teaches what they are comfortable with – bad habits and all. It is not uncommon for fire dispatchers to move from agency to agency – either for better working conditions, or pay. The problem lies in no base of knowledge to work from. When an experienced dispatcher comes into a new organization, they have to be started at the lowest level of learning to establish their base of knowledge.”

“Management jobs are rare for fire dispatchers,” Berdan continued. “If there are any career advancement opportunities, it is only up to the first-line management level. Fire dispatchers also rarely receive in-service training that would enhance their careers. A certification program would allow dispatchers to continue their education and gain professional recognition in their chosen field.”

The proposal was granted by the State Fire Marshal and a curriculum outline established by the Northern and Southern Sections, led by Berdan and Pianalto. Other active participants in the curriculum development have included Chuck Barker (Placer County Fire, 1993 Northern President), Don Stabler (Contra Costa County Fire, 1994-95 Northern President), and Jim Acosta (Downey Fire, 1995 Southern President). The Communication Section works closely with the CFCA parent organization as well as the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Fire & Rescue Division, in developing classroom training and exercises. The Northern Division drafted a bulletin later issued by OES governing the use of statewide mutual aid fire frequencies, and also sent Treasurer Dave Swall (Marin County Fire) to participate in the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) revision on its dispatcher manual. A Home Page on the Internet was also established by Dave Larton (Gilroy Fire, 1996 Northern Vice President).

Bi-monthly meetings rotate throughout member agencies, and always afford the opportunity for tours. Southern Section meetings have been at such locations as the new Los Angeles County’s EOC and the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant; Northern has met at San Francisco Fire, Alameda County’s new EOC, and at the Skywalker Ranch Fire Department in Marin County. Meetings often coincide with important gatherings such as regional APCO conferences and Fire-Rescue West in San Jose. “A good deal of networking and roundtable discussion is done at these meetings which assists us in determining what types of equipment, procedures, and operations are working – or not working – for an individual communications center or between centers on a mutual aid basis,” said Don Wise, Southern’s 1995 Secretary. “These meetings provide a forum for discussion about ongoing education and training goals and objectives.” Minutes from Northern and Southern meetings are mailed to almost 200 different fire communication centers.

Among the first lesson plans completed was an Incident Dispatcher Class – instructing fire dispatchers to function as incident dispatchers on the scene of a major, extended-operation incident. The concept – a segment of the Incident Command System subscribed to by most California Fire Departments – utilizes the dispatcher’s specialized skills in multi-tasking, accuracy, and adaptability and puts them to work at an incident scene, filling a command post support role previously occupied by fire captains or fire fighters. Both Northern and Southern Divisions have taught numerous Incident Dispatcher classes – in conjunction with ICS classes certified by the State Fire Marshal’s Office – to create a pool of dispatchers prepared to staff a Comm Unit during wildfires and other major incidents. Some agencies have developed the concept further by training and outfitting Incident Dispatcher Teams to respond to local greater alarms and provide communications and resource tracking support at an incident command post. The concept, standardized by the Communications Section, has been very well received.

The Northern Division, working in conjunction with the Alameda and Contra Costa County Fire Training Officers Associations, generated a live-fire training exercise in July, 1995, that gave their trained Incident Dispatchers a chance to practice their new-found skills in a very realistic scenario. Dispatchers checked-in arriving strike teams, tracked the status of nearly 30 engines throughout the all-day exercise, and provided incident-specific communications at the command post. “The Communications Section continues to take the lead in enhanced dispatcher training in support of field operations, both from the Comm Center and from the Incident Command Post,” said Don Stabler.

In the final stages of development is an Emergency Medical Dispatch curriculum as well as additional courses intended to provide a consistent career track for fire dispatchers. Course content ranges from entry level courses, specialized classes (haz-mat, wildland fires, high-rise incidents), through communications management. Classes will be formatted to tie in with other fire service training courses such as Communications Unit Leader, Resource Unit Leader, and others offered on a national level.

The object, beyond better and more consistently trained fire dispatchers, is a method of certifying fire dispatchers state-wide. “The system can be used by either fire or combination fire/law dispatch centers.” said Nicole Pianalto, now Operations Coordinator for Sacramento Regional Fire/EMS Communications. “We recognize that the majority of fire departments in the state are dispatched from combined centers. This program will work in conjunction with the required POST training for law enforcement dispatchers.”

In addition to the benefit of increased training for dispatchers, the idea would be a boon for comm managers. “For employers, when you do a lateral hire, somebody who comes in with copies of their state certification for Dispatcher I and II, you’ll know that there are some standards of education that have been given to that person,” Berdan said. “As employers, we’ll have a better comfort level with what they know already.”

While that level of training and standardization has not yet been achieved, the Communication Section has made important strides in providing training to fire dispatchers throughout the state.   “Almost since our reorganization we have been in the development stages of a dispatcher training program and career development guide,” said Stabler. “Many hours have been spent developing course outlines, lesson plans, student handouts, and other related materials. We have been working with the State Fire Marshal’s Office and we are currently reviewing our work for submission. Some of our course material has been taught in-house to fine tune the product.”

Randall D. Larson, was a Senior Dispatcher and Field Communications Director for the San Jose Fire Dept; he served as Secretary for the CFCA Communications Section, Northern Div., from 1993-1998; chaired the Incident Dispatch Curriculum Standards & Training Committee, 1998-2004, was the 2005 Vice President, and has co-instructed the CFCA Incident Dispatcher classes since 1997.