Reprinted with Permission and Copyright 2003,
The New York Times
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
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than a week, were withdrawn two days later.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
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
"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."