September 18, 2002
No Quick Fix for Radios, New York Fire Dept. Says
By JIM DWYER
York City's fire commissioner said yesterday that it could be several years
before all the necessary equipment for reliable communications inside the
city's tallest buildings is bought or found and connected.
Because the Fire Department's response to the attack on the World Trade
Center was plagued with communications problems, the commissioner, Nicholas
Scoppetta, said that he had made improved communications one of his most
urgent priorities since he took office in January.
He said he had been stymied, however, because new radios by themselves
would not solve the problems.
The firefighters also need a network of antennas and boosters, he said,
and the department lacks basic information about what existing equipment it
can share with the Police Department, or with internal communication systems
used in many tall buildings.
"It's not radios; it's infrastructure," Mr. Scoppetta said. "We don't
know yet what will be needed."
Speaking at a City Council hearing on the Fire Department's response on
9/11, the commissioner also said he expected the department to continue
relying on police helicopters for high-rise operations. He said that "while
it would be nice" for his department to have its own fleet, helicopters were
Other witnesses and council members offered pointed rebuttals, and in
some cases, sharp criticism to the commissioner's testimony, a shift in the
tone of discussion of the emergency operations from reverential to openly
Vincent Dunn, a retired deputy fire chief and the author of three
textbooks on firefighting, said that while many urban fire departments had
resisted the use of helicopters for rescue, it was clear from the attack on
the trade center that people trapped on the upper floors of a raging fire
expected to have a chance to escape from the roof.
The hearing, before the Council's Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice
Services, focused on the now well-known difficulties encountered by rescuers
at the World Trade Center. The Police and Fire Departments barely spoke and
did not coordinate their rescue plans. Few firefighters in the north tower
knew that the south tower had collapsed at 9:59 a.m. or that the police were
broadcasting urgent warnings that the building they were in was about to
collapse. When it fell 29 minutes later, at least 121 firefighters died.
As far back as April 2001, the Council held hearings on the Fire
Department radios, and many of the questions were repeated almost word for
"I don't think the people of New York can afford to see the F.D.N.Y. come
before this committee again without the right answers on communications,"
said Yvette Clarke, the chairwoman of the committee.
Mr. Scoppetta said he knew that the department had been struggling with
its radio problems for at least four years, and said that he had put them at
the top of his list. Challenged repeatedly about why no solutions had been
reached before, Mr. Scoppetta insisted that he did not want to place blame.
He also said he should not be held responsible for the failures. "I don't
want to have to answer for the sins of those who were there before," Mr.
The department is now conducting field tests of digital radios that it
first considered buying four years ago. They were put into service in early
2001 and quickly withdrawn after firefighters reported problems.
Mr. Scoppetta said he planned to decide in early November whether to
distribute the radios across the entire department or scrap them altogether.
A purchase of yet other new radios would take two years, he said.
Any new radios would have to be linked to repeaters, which amplify
signals. The department may be able to connect the radios with internal
communications systems operated by the owners of tall buildings.
A survey of the equipment is under way, Mr. Scoppetta said, adding that
the police already had an elaborate network and may be able to share it with
the Fire Department. Simply buying the same radios as the police would not
work, he said, since fire communications are conducted inside or near a
building, while police generally relay messages through a dispatcher.
Among the more striking aspects of yesterday's hearing was the hard-nosed
questioning of Mr. Scoppetta by the council members and the blunt testimony
from union leaders, fire safety experts and relatives of people who had
Many were direct in stating their views of the shortcomings of emergency
operations under the administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, though Mr.
Scoppetta had high praise for the former mayor.
Still, the tone was a major departure from the general acclaim for Mr.
Giuliani. Moreover, it was clear that many of those present had moved on
from the daze of early loss, when New Yorkers were figuring out exactly
where friends, relatives and acquaintances worked in the buildings, and
turned into a "city of floor numbers," as Julie Talen, a SoHo resident, put
Beverly Eckert, whose husband, Sean Rooney, tried to get onto the roof of
the south tower but found the door locked, said that after the hearings at
City Hall, she planned to go to Washington to monitor a Congressional
investigation. "You either ask the hard questions, or you live with the
status quo," she said.