August 6, 2002
Fire Dept. to Start Reissuing Radios Pulled Last Year
By KEVIN FLYNN
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