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from: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/18/nyregion/18RESP.html?todaysheadlines 

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September 18, 2002

No Quick Fix for Radios, New York Fire Dept. Says



New 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 expensive.

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 critical.

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 word.

"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. Scoppetta said.

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 died.

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 it recently.

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.


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