CALFIRE Dispatch's repeater system is called "Local Net", a term that goes back to the early 60's and 70's of CDF's Radio System. Anywhere in the state, Local Net means the frequency that the Unit's ECC uses for day to day radio traffic, including dispatching. Each Unit has a series of repeaters each covering certain geographical areas of the Unit. Each repeater is activated by a different CTCSS tone. A fire engine that wants to talk on Local Net chooses the repeater with the best coverage. They switch repeaters by switching "tones."
Once units are on scene of an incident, they switch to a tactical channel (tac net) for their on-scene communications. CALFIRE Tact 1 through 12 are used throughout the state (13 through 23 are utilized as input channels to CDF repeaters and used only for emergency overflow use.) The tactical traffic is simplex (radio to radio, no repeater.) This means you will only hear tactical traffic near you. Because of the constant recycling of the CALFIRE VHF frequencies, you might hear other Local Nets while trying to listen to the tactical traffic, especially with a large outdoor antenna or with any elevation off the valley floor. As of fire season 2011, all tac nets should be on tone 192.8, which should help in listening to distant incidents without local nets getting in the way. As a fire gets larger, more tactical frequencies will be assigned to the incident.
The Command Net is the frequency which command, logistics and administrative traffic takes place. Sometimes on small incidents the local net is used as the command net. If the incident grows, they can move to a separate command repeater. Command Net repeaters are high level, wide coverage, repeaters scattered throughout the state. Command 1 and 2 are on unique frequencies not shared by anything else in the state. Commands 3-10 serve regional areas throughout the state.
Some Counties and Operational Areas have started utilizing locally licensed repeaters for county command nets for their own use, outside of the state-licensed command nets. These county command nets can be utilized to either augment the state command net coverage in the area, or expand the use of Local Net, where dispatch occurs on Local Net but response checkback and incident command occurs on the county command net. These frequencies are typically listed on local frequency resources and not necessarily on CALFIRE frequency lists.
Air Attack Nets
These frequencies are FM tactical nets for the state aerial firefighting response. Different areas have an initial air tactics they favor, such as Air Tactics 5 for upper Sac Valley. Every aircraft enroute to a fire on initial attack will report on this frequency as soon as they get in the air. Once on scene, they will coordinate their firefighting efforts over this frequency. Air to Ground is utilized for aircraft to talk to ground resources for any reason. Click here to read further on how to monitor aerial firefighting.
This system of low-band repeaters was a great concept for longer range communications that the battalion and division chiefs could utilize away from the busy VHF hi-band freqs. However the state budget over the past years has put a halt to expanding and maintaining this system and the project is in limbo. It will be rare to hear any traffic on these frequencies.
Emergency Command Center
Emergency Command Centers (ECC) are the voice of CALFIRE Radio. The dispatchers maintain radio control of all the various incidents in their respective units. Other agencies that work well with CALFIRE often are dispatched out of the ECC. County and City fire departments, as well as ambulances can be dispatched on local net right along CALFIRE resources. This may make things pretty busy on local net, but the agencies all benefit by sharing the same info, while responding to the same incident. The ECC is also the Unit's frequency coordinator. They will issue out tactical frequencies to an incident that needs them. They will also find aerial tactical frequencies (Victor nets) to use from the FAA etc. if the normal ones are all used up.
Each ECC dispatch has a name on the radio, the city that the ECC resides in. This is how you can tell which Local Net you're listening to. St. Helena, is the city where the ECC and Headquarters for Unit 14, Lake/Napa Unit resides in. All fire resources will call "St Helena" over the air to contact that ECC.
CALFIRE frequencies are reused throughout the state. Local Net in one county could be a tactical net two counties away, and still be a Command Net elsewhere. Because of this, CTCSS tones are vital to minimize interference between locations shared frequencies. While being ingenious in saving money and frequency resources, it makes CALFIRE unfriendly to monitor with a high-gain antenna or from a high elevation. Because tones aren't fully utilized on tactical nets, you might switch to a high-gain antenna to hear that distant incident tactical traffic, only to also bring in the distant Local Net sharing the same frequency.
If you have this problem and not sure who you're hearing, my "sorted by Freq" list will help you, and explain just how recycled these frequencies are. It shows a frequency, and how it's used throughout the state.