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AUG 07, 2001

Fire Officials to Reprogram Digital Radios


Conceding that they had jumped too quickly into untested waters, New York City fire officials said yesterday that they planned to reprogram their entire inventory of new, hand-held digital radios so they will operate using analog technology similar to what firefighters have been using for decades.

The 4,000 digital radios, which were bought at a cost of about $14 million, had been promoted as an advance that would provide clearer and more reliable communications. They had to be pulled from service in March when a distress call from a firefighter trapped in a burning house was not heard by some of his colleagues.

The Fire Department has been using its old radios ever since, while officials consider their options. The officials have consistently said the primary problem with the radios was that they were introduced too abruptly to a force that was unfamiliar with the quirks of digital transmission, like half- second delays.

But yesterday, Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen said officials needed more time to evaluate whether digital transmission ware best-suited for all firefighting situations. It is clearly better at fires in high-rise buildings, he said, but it may not be as good at picking up distress calls because simultaneous transmissions from digital radios can cancel one another out.

"There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered about the use of a digital system," Mr. Von Essen said. "But I don't think it will be too long before people will see the advantages of it and we can expand the use systemwide."

While the questions are being resolved, fire officials said, it makes no sense to continue using the existing two-way radios, many of them more than 10 years old and subject to breakdowns, especially since the new models can be programmed to operate in either analog or digital mode. The officials said the new radios were also more powerful and durable than the radios they are replacing and would operate on the UHF frequency, making it possible to communicate with other city agencies like the Police Department. The current radios operate on VHF frequency.

Starting in a few weeks, the reprogrammed radios will be tested for two months at the Fire Academy. If all goes well, the radios will be distributed again to fire companies in a few months, officials said.

When the problem with the new radios became apparent several months ago, fire officials were accused of failing to heed warnings about them, failing to test them properly and violating contracting rules in their zeal to buy them. Critics said yesterday's announcement confirmed how misguided the department's approach to the new radios had been.

"Taxpayers have now spent top dollar for a digital radio with no competitive bidding when it's unclear these radios will ever be used in that format," said Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi, who released a report this spring criticizing the radio purchase.

Union officials said that they supported the return to the more familiar technology, but that the department should have sought more comment from labor representatives of the firefighters and officers who actually use the equipment.

Fire officials said that while they had reservations, they continued to believe that digital technology would prove the most effective, especially as the equipment evolves. In digital transmissions, sounds are coded into a stream of 1's and 0's that can be read by a computer chip and reassembled into the original sound. The technique is markedly different from traditional analog transmissions, in which electronic signals are transmitted in radio waves that correspond to sound waves.

The new radios were used in the digital mode for a week in March and, union officials say, dozens of firefighters had problems with them then.

Fire officials have disputed the extent of the complaints but have acknowledged that there were several instances in which messages were lost, apparently because two firefighters tried to transmit at the same time. Officials said they might be able to correct that problem by installing an override button on the radios so that a firefighter with an essential message, like a distress call, would be heard.

Officials insist that the vast majority of complaints came from firefighters who were simply unaccustomed to the characteristics of digital transmissions, like the sound distortion that resembles an echo. Several months from now, the department plans to begin training firefighters in those characteristics by using the radios in the digital mode at sessions on fighting high-rise fires. Digital technology works well in that setting, officials said, because it penetrates concrete better, allowing firefighters clearer reception as they speak from floor to floor.

To what extent the use of digital technology can expand beyond that situation remains the open question, officials said.

Capt. Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said he would not be convinced that the radios worked properly, even in an analog mode, until they had been sufficiently tested. He said he was upset that the department would not allow a representative selected by his union to sit on the review committee that has been considering the problem.

"I am very suspicious about this," he said. "There was not one uniformed member of the department who knew anything about these radios before they were introduced last March. And since then we have not been able to get a word of feedback about what they have done to fix this."