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from The Washington Times http://www.washingtontimes.com/metro/20011228-6340830.htm

EMS crews say radios risk lives
By Matthew Cella


     D.C. paramedics say radio problems with the city's $5.3 million communications system are endangering not just the lives of firefighters but also the lives of residents in need of emergency medical care.

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     Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel were issued the same 800-megahertz Motorola digital radios as firefighters in January. They say the radios often fail when they need to notify hospitals they are transporting trauma patients and when they seek emergency approval to perform life-saving treatments on asthmatics, heart-attack victims and patients with respiratory failure.
     The Washington Times first reported in August that the firefighters' communications system fails in more than four dozen "dead zones" around the city. Firefighters this week said they have yet to see conditions improve and that the problem is far more pervasive than first reported.
     A firefighter demonstrated for The Times the radios' limitations by taking them one floor below street level in an underground parking garage and into a downtown office building. In both cases, the radio emitted a "honk," signaling that it was "out of range."
     Kenneth Lyons, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3721, which represents the city's paramedics, said those are the same places medical emergencies happen, and communications failures degrade paramedics' ability to provide care.
     "It used to be the exception. In most cases, it's the rule." Mr. Lyons said. "It's just not trustworthy."
     In case of radio failures, Mr. Lyons said paramedics are supposed to call a dispatcher, who will relay messages to the hospital, a system he called "antiquated."
     He said more often medics use personal cellular telephones to communicate with hospital emergency rooms.
     The Fire and EMS Department in January took back the cell phones it had issued to personnel and distributed the new Motorola radios.
     "People are dying," one paramedic said. "Not having the rapid ability to consult a physician to obtain orders denies the patient of every option that should be available to them."
     The paramedic, who asked not to be identified, declined to cite a specific example of a patient who died because of the faulty radios. The paramedic estimated about 20 percent of EMS calls require advice or approval from an emergency room physician.
     Paramedics said in a handful of locations, including stretches of Interstate 395 in the District, much of Southeast and the city's central business district, communications are often unintelligible.
     "What you get is garbled," one paramedic said. "You know it's someone talking, but you have no idea what they're saying."
     The situation is worse underground in Metro stations.
     "You get 'honked out' halfway down the escalator most of the time," the paramedic said.
     Mr. Lyons said EMS workers sharing information with emergency room doctors don't have the luxury of relaying messages or searching for cell phones or land lines during the "golden hour." That's when the chances of saving a trauma patient dramatically improve, provided the patient gets to the operating table within an hour of injury.
     "What we are talking about is lost seconds that could lead to a lost life," he said.
     D.C. Fire and EMS Communications Director Lisa Bass said yesterday the department isn't aware of any specific cases in which radio problems have endangered lives.
     "No one has brought that to management's attention, but we would welcome any information that lives are in jeopardy because our job is to save lives, and that is what we are trying to do," she said.
     Fire Chief Ronnie Few has said the problems stem from the fact that the city needs 19 antenna towers to relay radio signals but has only four.
     Assistant Chief of Operations Adrian Thompson said yesterday through Miss Bass that the department next week plans to test a prototype mobile repeater system that could enhance coverage at the scene of an incident. A repeater is a small antenna about the size of briefcase that broadens a radio's area of coverage.
     Chief Thompson said funds have been earmarked to acquire 70 repeaters one for each of the department's first-response vehicles contingent on successful tests.
     "Motorola is telling us these things will solve the problem," said Miss Bass, who was not able to provide a timeline as to when the repeaters could be operational.
     Motorola officials yesterday confirmed that the repeaters would enhance coverage and that four to six additional antenna towers still would be needed.
     Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Margaret Kellems said Mayor Anthony A. Williams is committed to solving the radio problem and that emergency preparedness funds appropriated by Congress last week should make the task easier.
     "The city is now in a position to make a major investment in this to eliminate all the Band-Aid solutions," Mrs. Kellems said.