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
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
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
"The city is now in a position to make a major investment in this
to eliminate all the Band-Aid solutions," Mrs. Kellems said.