Of Tone-Outs, Turnouts and a Press Badge

IT’S HARD TO WATCH LIVES going up in smoke in order to tell other people about it. But on a professional level, it’s thrilling to see firefighters bringing order to chaos.

When I worked for the Sonoma Index-Tribune between 1998 and 2003 (and for the Sonoma Sun in 2008), I wore a pager that one of the departmental chiefs had loaned me for the duration. It was the same make and model worn by the firefighters themselves (professional and volunteer), and would beep three times before broadcasting the appropriate jurisdiction’s “tone-out” (a two-note musical chime, unique to the responding department[s]) and an abbreviated situation report along the lines of: “Sonoma; possible structure fire; Andrieux Street cross of Broadway; time out, 1400.” This would be followed by the responding agency informing the dispatcher that the truck(s) were on the way; when they arrived at the scene, they would give a situation report of their own: “Arrived at scene, single-family dwelling, no smoke showing; out to investigate.”

Most of the calls were like that. (Actually, most of the calls were for medical aids: people fainting, falling or having heart issues.) Sometimes, though, there would be several call-outs for multiple engines (and occasionally, agencies). When that happened, I would be in my car before the units arrived on scene, trying to get a head start on whatever was happening before traffic got too bad.

When the arrival-on-scene report was “smoke showing” or worse, “fully involved — setting up Andrieux IC (incident command),” I would then take the fastest, most direct route to the incident and see what I could see. Depending on the neighborhood, there would be any number of people in the streets watching the proceedings. For a large incident, I would don my yellow Nomex wildland “turnouts” (emblazoned on the back with “PRESS”) before grabbing my pocket tape recorder and looking around for witnesses (not victims, ever ever ever) or the incident commander for their perspective(s) on the goings-on. I had my job, the firefighters had theirs, and I took great pains to make sure I stayed the hell out of their way (usually standing with my back against a nearby tree or wall).

I’d usually stay until the incident was under control before high-tailing it back to the office to start writing a formulaic story: a one-sentence lede; usually followed by the most relevant quote; then a description of how the fire started and what the firefighters had done about it, larded (and usually ending) with illustrative quotes. After that, the story would be picked over by my colleagues for grammar, style and clarity before being routed to the composing department, thence to be published in Sonoma’s then-Paper of Record.

So that’s how it’s done. Any questions?

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