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The Washington Times

Fire crews shun
unreliable radio system

Matthew Cella


Published 6/22/2002


     D.C. firefighters routinely do not use their new radio system and have been relying on their personal cellular telephones for communications during emergencies, fire and city officials say.
     The situation was brought to light Wednesday, when a 10-hour loss of radio communications after a lightning strike forced dispatchers to communicate with fire stations by cellular phone.
     Firefighters say using cell phones during emergencies is a common practice because of ongoing problems with the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department's 800-megahertz digital radio system. Firefighters have criticized the $5.3 million Motorola system for failing in emergencies since it was brought on line in January 2001.
     During an April 28 house fire in the 1300 block of Emerson Street NW, a firefighter working in an attic fell through the floor. He was not injured, but his radio failed when he called for help. Firefighters working nearby heard him scream and rescued him.
     One battalion chief said using his cell phone to contact communications or firefighters on the scene of an incident is a "daily occurrence" downtown.
     "It's not unusual that you can't get through on a radio and you pick up a cell phone and call out," the battalion chief said.
     "It's a ticking time bomb," Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, said of the faulty radio system. "There isn't anything tangible that I can put my hands on to say this system is better than it was a year ago."
     Lt. Sneed said he has attended meetings at the city's office of the chief technology officer and is aware of studies and plans and of funds that have been appropriated to resolve the communications problem. "For the end user, things are still the same," he said.
     Fire Safety Officer Kevin Byrne said his office tracks the locations of communication problems, but the problems have become so pervasive, firefighters rarely report them anymore.
     Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety, said the city has taken steps to address the problems, bolstered by a $46 million federal appropriation to the office of the chief technology officer.
     "We know exactly where we want to go; we've got the money to get there, and we intend to get there quickly," Mrs. Kellems said.
     Close to $30 million will buy equipment to improve radio communication, Mrs. Kellems said. "The mandate that we have given the people working on this problem is that we need as much improvement as quickly as possible."
     Mrs. Kellems said the city plans to build four radio towers for $10 million to supplement the four currently in use. She said zoning issues still have to be worked out but that the city has a "theoretical understanding" of where the towers should be located.
     She said 35 to 70 mobile repeaters briefcase-sized antennas will be purchased and installed in emergency vehicles to enhance communications on emergency scenes, along with two to four truck-sized multichannel repeaters. That package will cost $2.1 million.
     Twenty to 25 in-building antennas will be purchased at a cost of $4 million to penetrate some of the most difficult sites, including Union Station and some federal buildings.
     Engineering costs will run about $7 million, and the city is paying $9 million to increase its bandwidth, buying spectrum space in the 700-megahertz band.
     A $3 million cost for communications improvements in the subway system will be shared by Metro and the city.
     Mrs. Kellems said firefighters will see improvements as soon as the vehicle repeaters arrive. "We've tested it, and it works," she said. "Now the issue is buying them and training people."
     She said the entire package should be in place in 13 to 15 months.
     Mrs. Kellems said problems firefighters currently deal with are typical of several major municipalities using the 800-megahertz radio system.
     "That's not where we want to be, but we're fortunate enough to be able to make an investment to get out of that situation," she said.
     Mrs. Kellems said she plans to organize a meeting with officials from the office of the chief technology officer and rank-and-file firefighters to explain the progress of the improvements and address concerns about the new system.



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