"From a firefighter perspective, communication is our No. 1 priority – 24 x 7 x 365."

Posted on July 23, 2019

by Donna Black, Fire Chief, Duck, N.C.

The ability to go into an area you're not familiar with, with people you don't know, and to have consistent, reliable and sustainable communications during an event, is huge.

So, from a firefighter perspective, communication is our No. 1 priority – 24 x 7 x 365.

That’s why we’re on FirstNet.

I need to know I can pick up the phone or I can pick up the radio and I can get who I need to get – whether it's my firefighters in a building or on a call somewhere in town.

We need to have reliable, consistent communications – whatever the situation.

Serving the community

I've been fire chief in Duck, N.C., since 2006. When I joined in the '90s it was all volunteer and most everyone then could go into a burning building. That was their job. They weren't support firefighters. They were what we call suppression firefighters.

As the town has grown and changed – and people have moved away and others moved in – we’ve become more of a combination department to serve the needs of a retirement/tourist community.

We’re both paid and volunteer. And we're pretty proud about how we've developed our program so that we can get community members involved. They don't necessarily want to be the ones to go in to a fire. But they can drive the apparatus, they can do traffic control, they can pull lines to the exterior, they can help with extrication.

Overcoming challenges

One of the things we really struggle with here is that we're one long island with one road cutting through. Our mutual aid is coming in a train, so we have to make sure we can handle things until help arrives. We need to be able to sustain ourselves for about 20 minutes before we're going to get extra help.

And the biggest difference between Duck and other areas in North Carolina and around the country is the change in the volume of calls during the summer months. We put about 25,000 people in 2.32 square miles for several months. So, the number of calls per day goes up. And sometimes the intensity of the call goes up when you have people vacationing 20 in a house.

We all tend to have majority medical. That's still probably 50 to 60 percent. But we also have water, so we have this whole other piece with surf rescue. And we have a contracted service for that.

Every year we train with surf rescue. We'll go down with the lifeguards and do scenarios where we're rescuing folks in trouble, bringing them to shore. We will do scenarios where they might have a neck injury because they dove into the surf and hit the sandbar.

We’ll simulate near drownings, where they actually took in water and maybe drowned and then we're having to do CPR and trying to resuscitate. Or it can be a simple they just got in the water, got in trouble, and they're fatigued and we're checking vitals. So, we'll play out all those scenarios. They'll go out and rescue them and then, we'll do our part on shore.


When you look at the potential of what FirstNet can do for first responders, it’s huge.

The ability to monitor the firefighters, to have consistent communications with our partners when you look at a large incident is really important. If we have a wind driven fire and two or three houses are involved and it's the middle of the night, we've got crews everywhere. I need to know my communication is reliable – to be able say, "Where are my firefighters and how are they feeling and how are they looking?"

Incident command, especially down here, is dependent on communication because we don't have a lot of advances in technology.

If we can get everyone else on board with what we're seeing and what we're trying to do, that's where FirstNet will make the biggest difference for us.

Chief Donna Black has been in the fire service for over 22 years. She started her career as a volunteer, and worked her way through the ranks as both a paid and volunteer firefighter. In 2006 when she became the Fire Chief for the Town of Duck, N.C. Chief Black graduated from the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, holds the Chief Fire Officer (CFO) designation and obtained a post-graduate Certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the Gillings School of Public Health at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Black serves on the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Board of Directors and is the co-chair of the IAFC Women Chiefs Council.