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from: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/06/nyregion/06RADI.html

August 6, 2002

Fire Dept. to Start Reissuing Radios Pulled Last Year



The Fire Department will begin reissuing new, but controversial, handheld radios to firefighters on Staten Island later this month and, if all goes well, will distribute them citywide in the fall, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said yesterday.

The city had pulled the radios from service in March 2001, and resumed using older equipment, after a firefighter's call for help during a Queens fire went unheard. But the performance of the older equipment on Sept. 11 has been criticized by some fire officers who say communication problems that day contributed greatly to the deaths of 343 firefighters.

Many firefighters, some using radios as much as 10 years old, apparently did not hear an evacuation order transmitted before the twin towers collapsed, a consultant for the city has concluded.

"We've waited long enough on those radios," Capt. Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said at a news conference yesterday during which he and other fire union leaders urged the city to accelerate the testing of the radios. Mr. Scoppetta's announcement came several hours later. Fire officials said the testing schedule had been set several weeks ago and was not sped up to respond to the unions.

The new radios have passed a battery of tests at the Fire Academy, Mr. Scoppetta said, and are being evaluated. Although they were supposed to operate using more advanced digital technology, the radios have been reprogrammed to operate in so-called analog mode, the same technology as the existing models. The new radios, however, operate on UHF frequencies, not VHF frequencies like the old models. They are believed to be better at penetrating buildings, and the new radios are compatible with police radios.

At the end of this month, all fire companies on Staten Island will be given the reprogrammed radios for a final eight-week test. Mr. Scoppetta said preliminary reports from a review committee indicated that the radios were working well.

Union officials disputed that assessment. Capt. John Dunne, who is monitoring the testing for the fire officers union, said the radios were just a little better than the ones currently in use, and had performed poorly in several recent tests.

Last Saturday, he said, firefighters who responded to a drill at Chase Manhattan Plaza in Lower Manhattan were unable to hear messages broadcast from the basement of the building.

A spokesman for Motorola, the company that makes both the old and the new radios, said any communication problems on Sept. 11 or during the drills did not stem from the radios themselves. Rather, the spokesman, John McFadden, said that any handheld radio would experience problems operating in a high-rise building that is not equipped with a repeater, a device that increases the signal.

Mr. Scoppetta said he was trying to have additional repeaters placed in high-rises or to make use of similar radio equipment that the Police Department has installed in such buildings. Police officials, whose radios performed without problems on Sept. 11, said they were considering the proposal to share equipment.

Even as the city presses forward with its possible solutions, officials remain unsure what actually went wrong with firefighter communications on Sept. 11. Initially, officials said the radios did not work well because a repeater at the World Trade Center had not been operating. But an audiotape of fire radio transmissions that surfaced in recent weeks has shown that the repeater did work, at least intermittently, in the south tower.

Officials have been unable to explain why the same repeater apparently did not work to help transmit messages in the north tower. Two evacuation orders given in that building were not heard by many firefighters on the upper floors, investigators have concluded.

According to several survivors, many of these firefighters did not hurry to get out of the building because they seemed unaware of the evacuation order and the fact that the south tower had collapsed.

"This administration has a responsibility, regardless of current fiscal problems, to see that firefighters are properly equipped with radios that actually work," said Stephen Cassidy, the new president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.