A conflict is brewing between the Oneida County Department of Emergency Services and a handful of local fire chiefs who do not want to give up their 3-digit identification numbers.
The county 9-1-1 Center is planning to switch from number identifications to plain language in order to better serve an impending upgrade to a digital radio system. But the local chiefs say they do not want to give up their 3-digits because of tradition and other technical concerns.
“There’s a lot of history that goes with the identification,” said Western Fire Chief Michael Anania, who has been ‘650’ for more than 20 years. Anania said he has no plans to change that identification, and he is also worried about what will happen if every chief in the county suddenly becomes “car one.”
“If you go to a fire scene, when somebody talks on the radio, the majority of the time the first part of the transmission gets cut off. So if we have six ‘car ones’ there, they’re all the same identify. But if you have six different chief numbers there, they’re individuals. It’s less confusing at a fire scene.”
County officials said they had hoped to get every fire agency on board by July 2019, so that the new radio system could go live later this year. When several departments refused to adapt, letters were sent out at the end of 2019 from the Department of Emergency Services to some of the municipalities, informing them about the change and warning them of financial and insurance-based repercussions.
The coronavirus pandemic has put the issue on hold for the time being, but county officials said change is coming whether the chiefs like it or not.
“We do everything not to hold people back or to tee anybody off or make trouble in the water. Everything is for a positive impact for the future, not a negative one. And to make it easier to use, and to make people work together better,” said North Bay Fire Chief Joseph Matthews, a member of the 9-1-1 radio committee and the county’s chosen spokesperson on the issue.
Matthews had been ‘720’ for the past 10 years.
“It’s very frustrating when it’s not working out the way it should, when people aren’t agreeing to it just because they think that the county is trying to shove it down their throat. I’ve heard that a million times.”
“You can’t hold back progress because you want to hold on to your traditions,” Matthews stated, adding that, “You’re just going to have to repeat yourself if they don’t hear who you are.”
At the heart of the conflict is how each agency interprets the rules of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which is a part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). According to Matthews and the county, NIMS requires a “recognizable” identifier, even if NIMS does not provide a set standard. According to Anania, NIMS will allow him to keep using his 3-digit number.
When contacted earlier this year for clarification, a spokesperson FEMA released only the following:
“NIMS guides all levels of government, nongovernmental organization, and the private sector to work together to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from incidents. NIMS provides stakeholders across the whole community with the shared vocabulary, systems, and processes to successfully deliver the capabilities described in the National Preparedness System.”
“NIMS is meant to be applicable to all these partners and scalable based on the type and size of the disaster. As such, there are no specific guidelines for how fire departments should report on their radio calls.”
“Incident personnel should establish procedures for using technology and other tools to benefit from these valuable communications resources. Information that personnel gain or share during an incident through these applications should follow planned and standardized methods and generally conform to overall information sharing standards, procedures, and protocols.”
When Oneida County first started to centralize fire dispatching in about 1951, Chief Matthews said they did not have any state or federal guidelines for identifiers — so they came up with the 3-digit system on their own and started assigning numbers based on the county map. Each agency would get a bracket of 10 numbers to use.
“Oneida County issued them a number and said, ‘this is your number’. They weren’t federally-issued numbers. They weren’t state-issued numbers. There were no guidelines,” Matthews explained.
“They basically took a circle, a dot, in the City of Rome, and just started working it out like a bullseye.”
The Rome Fire Department had 600 through 609, the next agency was assigned 610 through 619 and so on and so forth. The same was done for fire departments around Utica, which had 200 through 209.
“It worked fine for a lot of years,” Matthews stated.
But as the decades passed, a major problem became obvious: what happens when an agency has more than 10 fire trucks?
“If they ran out of numbers, they would just name it common language,” Matthews said, and soon apparatus started getting called “Tanker 1” or “Ladder 1”.
Then in 2003, Matthews said the county legislature voted to be fully compliant with NIMS policies.
“That meant that we have to go by the guidelines that NIMS puts in place in order to be, basically, funded through the federal government, to be recognized through the federal and state government,” he explained.
“Any form that you fill out for any type of grant, any type of funding, any type of anything, one of the first questions on there is ‘Is your county NIMS compliant?’ And if you put on there ‘no’, they don’t want to talk to you because you’re not playing nice with the rest of the federal government and the state. They want to make sure that you’re doing things the right way. Because if you’re not doing them the right way, if you’re not compliant, then they don’t want to deal with you,” said Chief Matthews about the importance of meeting the NIMS guidelines.
“It’s just a set of standards that they set in place, and you can adopt them, or you don’t have to. NIMS doesn’t penalize you, they just don’t support you like you would want them to.”
And according to Matthews and the county, NIMS did not recognize the 3-digit number because it wasn’t part of any official guideline. Matthews said NIMS requires either the use of plain language or the use of a 4-digit number system based off each fire department’s federal identification number. Matthews said the county has chosen to go with plain language.
Matthews said plain language identification will be beneficial if they have to provide mutual aid outside of Oneida County, for larger fires or flooding.
“If there’s a big fire up north someplace, and they call us in for manpower, and I get on the radio and say, ‘North Bay 729 en route’, they have no clue what that means. Now, if I get on and say, ‘North Bay Rescue 1 responding’, they know I’ve got a rescue coming. ‘North Bay Engine 1 responding’, they know an engine is coming. But if I get on and say, ‘722 en route’, what in the world is ‘722’?” he stated.
“It’s a no-brainer to have the common language.”
Specifically for Oneida County, the new plain language identification ties into a county-wide upgrade to digital radios. Matthews said each radio is going to be keyed to each individual user, so whenever someone uses the radio, the 9-1-1 Center will know whose radio is being used. And for this new system, they want a unified, plain language identifier for every fire agency.
“They have to move forward with the times and get ready, because this digital radio system is coming in. And they have to be compliant with that so that they can put their digital IDs into the radio system,” Matthews stated.
“We’ve put a lot of time and a lot of money, this county has, into moving forward and getting new towers and getting new radios and getting new antennas and new digital channels and everything else. You’ve got to move forward.”
Chief Matthews said Emergency Services first brought up the change to plain language in November 2016, hoping to give departments plenty of time to get used to the change before the digital radio system was implemented. He said they went back and forth with the departments for several months before eventually deciding to change over all apparatus to plain language, while leaving the chiefs at 3-digits for the time being.
“What we did is we tabled it at that one meeting and said we’ll do the engines, we’ll do the rescues, we’ll do all of that, and we’ll hold off on the chiefs until the next meeting” or whenever they got to it, he explained.
“The problem is that there were people who took that bull by the horns, saying, ‘look, even the radio committee doesn’t want this’ and that isn’t true. They put it out there as such, and went around and didn’t want to change over.”
Matthews said he understands where the holdout chiefs are coming from because he, too, felt the nostalgia and tradition inherent in the 3-digit system.
“I understand them completely. I didn’t want to give up my 3-digit number. My cousin had it for years. My uncle had it for years. Past chiefs have had it for years and years and years; it’s a tradition. That was the number. That was the thing to have back then,” Matthews stated.
“It’s great to have traditions. But when it’s holding back moving something forward and making something, then that’s an issue, in my opinion. You can’t go into a meeting with tunnel vision. You’ve got to be open-minded and know that these people have put a lot of time and a lot of effort, the fire chiefs themselves, have put a lot of time and a lot of effort into trying to make things work for their department.”
One agency that has had no problems with the change to plain language has been the Rome Fire Department.
“We felt they made a good argument. There was no reason why we couldn’t go. We saw no reason why we couldn’t do that,” said Rome Fire Chief Thomas Iacovissi. He said they made the change to plain language in 2019.
“We’ve had no problems with it. It’s just a learning process, like anything else when you change something. You’ve just go to get used to it,” Iacovissi stated. He noted that the county told him they could still use the 3-digit numbers when talking among themselves at a fire scene, but they had to use plain language when talking to the county.
“It really didn’t cause any issues for us,” Iacovissi said.
The Willowvale Fire Department put a new tanker truck into service this month and included a decal honoring former fire chief Wayne Smoulcey, who died of cancer in May 2019. Front and center on the memorial decal on the new truck is Smoulcey’s old number, “300”. When the department unveiled the new truck on social media, they called Smoulcey “the last of the 300s”.
“It’s heritage, the history that goes with identifying being that person,” said Western Fire Chief Michael Anania.
“I’m not opposing them. I’ve used it for 25 years, there’s nothing wrong with the way I’ve been using it. It doesn’t conform to the county because of their radio system. Why do they want to change? I’m not fighting it. I’m just saying that my identity is ‘650’ and that’s what I’m using. That’s all.”
“Why fix something that wasn’t broke?”
According to Anania, when the fire chiefs contacted FEMA themselves about the 3-digit number, they were told that NIMS had no problem with that identifier. Therefore, he said they saw no reason to change just because the county wanted it to happen.
“It does conform, so there was no reason to change it in the first place. It was uniform. It worked before. Nothing was wrong with it,” he stated. “It’s just a difference in a matter of opinion.”
Along with the tradition behind the numbers, Anania said it also keeps radio chatter clear because everyone on the radio has their own distinct number. He said radio transmissions are not perfect and sometimes the name of the town or village gets cut off. If that name gets cut off and everyone is “car one”, he said that will get “confusing”.
“Why should I have to repeat myself on radio time when they just need limited information?” Anania stated. “When you’re at a fire scene and you’ve got six different ‘car ones’, it’s very confusing.”
Anania has since had the Town of Western alter their contract with his department to solidify his 3-digit number in his contract.
Bridgewater Fire Chief William DeKing said he has been the number “350” for 31 years and he has no plan to change it.
“I’m not changing. That’s the way it’s been. To me, it’s an honor to be chief, an honor to earn that number,” DeKing stated.
“It means a lot to some people, and to some people, it doesn’t.”
DeKing is also a member of the 9-1-1 radio committee and he said he thought the decision to table the chief’s number change was a decision to not change the chief’s numbers at all. He said someone higher up in Emergency Services altered the decision later.
“They’re trying to strong arm us to change it,” DeKing stated.
DeKing said that the 3-digit identifier is especially important for Bridgewater because they sit right at the borders with Madison, Otsego and Herkimer counties, all of which use their own identifiers. When Bridgewater is called to assist in one of those neighboring counties, he said his 3-digit number keeps his agency unique when put up against the various rules and policies in those other counties — some of which use “car one” to refer to assistant chiefs, and some of which base their identifiers on the type of apparatus, not the agency.
“The county shouldn’t be threatening departments with” financial or insurance repercussions, “that’s not right,” DeKing stated.
“They’re trying to force it and that’s where the hard feelings are coming from.”