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,"
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
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."