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from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A16702-2001Aug29

Radio Problems Hamper Firefighters
D.C. Department's New System Needs More Antennas to Eliminate Dead Zones


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By Andrew DeMillo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2001; Page B02

The District fire department is studying ways to improve its $5.3 million emergency radio system to eliminate dead zones throughout the city where broadcasts cannot be transmitted or received by firefighters, Chief Ronnie Few said yesterday.

Few said the department has been trying to fix its radio problems for several months. The transmission trouble, first reported yesterday in the Washington Times, has occurred in four dozen locations, including Union Station, the Mayflower Hotel and MCI Center.

The department is using a system that is underfunded and ill-equipped for the city, said Few, who noted that the system has only four antenna sites, while it needs 19.

"I knew when I came here that we didn't have enough antenna sites," Few said. "It's time for us to clean up the system."

The system has experienced problems since it was set up eight months ago, firefighters say. Some firefighters are even relying on their cell phones during emergencies, said Raymond Sneed, head of the firefighters union.

"The job is dangerous enough when everything is working properly," Sneed said. "This is a life-threatening situation."

Firefighters are following an array of contingency plans to deal with the dead zones, Few said, including dispatching extra firetrucks to work as relay teams and using a backup analog radio channel.

Few said the department has been assessing the radio problems for two months and is consulting with Motorola on ways to improve the system. "This was something I inherited when I got here," he said.

The troubles started in the early 1990s, Few said, when the department proposed switching from an analog to a digital radio system. The system originally was budgeted for $60 million but was cut to $5.3 million.

"Someone tried to get away with less, and that's why we have this now," Few said.

The 800-megahertz Motorola system is not broken, said Steve Gorecki, spokesman for the company. He said that for the past three months, Motorola has been discussing ways to "improve and enhance" coverage.

"We provided exactly what was designed and contracted," Gorecki said. "D.C. Fire just wants to improve the coverage. . . . We're working with them on it."

The District poses a unique challenge for radio communication because of the thick walls and basements in many buildings, Gorecki said. Solutions include installing booster antennas for better broadcasts and increasing the number of antenna sites in the city.

D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) said the council is working with Few to find solutions to coverage problems.

"Some of this has to do with contract problems. What we originally requested of Motorola may not be enough," she said. "We're going to have to go back and work on that coverage and see what needs to be done."

Few said he did not know how much it would ultimately cost to clear up the radio communications dead spots in buildings. "No system is going to have 100 percent coverage," he said. "But we'd like to get as close as we can. . . . Cost won't be a factor when it comes to firefighter safety."



2001 The Washington Post Company