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Once the Source of a Dispute, New FDNY Radios Hit the Field
Firefighters Will Begin Using 3,500 Radios Feb. 11
Reprinted with Permission and Copyright 2003, The New York Times

Updated: 02-02-2003 08:25:27 PM


After two years of adjustments, tests and internal backbiting, the Fire Department has begun reissuing the hand-held radios that were pulled from service in 2001 after firefighters complained that they were prone to dangerous lapses in communication.

The 3,500 reconfigured radios have been distributed to firefighters across the city, who will begin using them on Feb. 11, Fire Department officials said.

The department has been using its old radios, many of them with more than 10 years of wear, after encountering problems with the newer ones, and it was that older model that firefighters carried into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, a day when some fire officers believe an inability to communicate contributed to the deaths of firefighters.

That day, many firefighters apparently did not hear an order to evacuate the towers before they fell. But experts have said those problems were caused by multiple flaws in the department's communication system that extended beyond any breakdowns in the performance of hand-held radios.

Nonetheless, consultants working for the city recommended that replacing the older radios with reworked newer models would be an important first step in addressing the department's communications weaknesses.

Senior fire officials have long insisted that there was no major defect in the radios they pulled from service in 2001. But they said those radios have nonetheless been reconfigured over the past year in response to firefighters' concerns and recent performance tests. They now regard them as much improved, they said.

Officials said they hope the distribution will end one of the city's longest and most contentious debates over a piece of firefighting equipment, an argument that began in March 2001 when a distress call from a firefighter trapped in a Queens house fire went unheard by some of his colleagues. He was not seriously injured. The new radios, which had been in use for less than a week, were withdrawn two days later.

"These are radios that have been extensively tested," said Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, "and I feel comfortable saying that they are tailored for our needs now."

Fire union officials said they are generally satisfied that the department has taken their criticisms of the radios seriously. "It seems that the F.D.N.Y. has improved the radios to the point where they seem to work significantly better than the ones currently in the field," said Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

As a second improvement, fire chiefs will be given suitcase-size, high-powered portable radios to use during high-rise fires to communicate from upper floors to commanders at a lobby command post, officials said.

Firefighters in high-rise buildings have long found it difficult to communicate through multiple floors of steel and concrete using small, hand-held radios, a problem that became tragically evident on Sept. 11.

Officials said the reconfigured hand-held radios had scored well in evaluations by thousands of firefighters who used them during drills or at fires on Staten Island, where the radios have been in use for the past five months.

Based in part on those trial experiences, officials changed several features of the radios. A volume-control knob was changed to make it easier for firefighters wearing gloves to use it. Sound reception was enhanced. An emergency-alert button that issues a distress signal was added.

Most significantly, perhaps, the radios, which were bought to operate using more advanced digital technology, have been reprogrammed to operate in "analog mode," the same technology as the older models.

Officials have long maintained that it was the novelty of digital technology, not defects, that had led to most of the complaints about the radios. Digital technology, they said, simply had characteristics, like echoing and half-second transmission delays, to which firefighters were not accustomed. Ultimately, they admitted that the radios had been introduced abruptly and without proper training to a work force that has traditionally clung to time-tested ways of doing things.

But union officials said those sorts of characterizations had severely minimized a serious, potentially life-threatening problem, identified by firefighters who were unable to hear messages on the radios. What is more, they contended that fire officials had ignored warnings from fire officers who had noticed the problems before the radios had even been distributed in 2001.

"We're happy these radios are marginally better than the radios they are replacing," said Capt. John Dunne, a spokesman for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "But we believe that little would have been done if it were not for the attention that we brought to this issue."

Over the past two years, the radios have been the subject of several government inquiries. City Council investigators found that the department introduced them without following a protocol that required full testing of new safety equipment. The city comptroller's office charged that the radios had been bought in an improper process that did not allow competing companies to bid, an accusation the city denied.

Critics from the fire union questioned how the city could have spent so much $15 million on radios that they said did not work right. The radios cost about $3,500 each, more than double what a typical analog radio costs.

Fire officials, however, said the radios were far from typical, even before the adjustments, which were paid for by the manufacturer, Motorola. The radios, they said, had many more channels and more power, five watts versus one, than the old radios and operate not on VHF frequencies, but on UHF frequencies, which are compatible with police radios.

Mr. Scoppetta said the radios will improve morale as long as firefighters accept that there is a learning curve for any new piece of sophisticated equipment. To that end, a 30-minute training video and experts are being sent to each firehouse.

"I think, given a little time, they will accept this," he said. "I think they are as anxious to get a good communication system as anyone."


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