- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2001

The D.C. fire department's $5.3 million emergency radio system cannot properly broadcast to firefighters in more than four dozen locations, including major landmarks like the D.C. police and FBI headquarters, Union Station, MCI Center and the State Department, documents obtained by The Washington Times show.
Firefighters' personal, portable radios also have trouble communicating with each other and reaching the communications center in these locations, fire department records show.
After eight months of operation, the "dead zone" problems have become so bad that some firefighters are using their own cellular phones to call the incident commander during emergencies.
"It's a life-or-death situation, and they're using their cell phones as a backup," said Lt. Raymond Sneed, head of the D.C. Firefighters Association.
When the digital radios fail, firefighters often switch to Channel 16, a backup analog channel that allows the radios to work like walkie-talkies, sending signals to nearby squad members, documents show.
But using that channel deactivates the emergency locator devices, fire department reports say.
"If you have a firefighter go down and tries to call out, you're on your own," Lt. Sneed said.
The 800-megahertz Motorola system went into service in January. Firefighters and higher-ranking officials immediately began writing reports to Chief Ronnie Few and the safety office about the problems.
The New York City Fire Department in March took similar Motorola digital radios out of service after operational problems, including a firefighter's Mayday that went unheard. Earlier this month, officials said they would reprogram the new radios to work in analog mode.
The personal radios go dead or make messages unintelligible in at least the four dozen dead zones listed in a Motorola test report and fire department memos to Chief Few.
A July 16 memo from Lt. Walter E. Webb to Chief Few lists 12 locations, including local and federal government buildings, where the portable radios have problems.
"This is just a small sample of the buildings that continue to give companies radio problems/failures," the memo states.
Chief Few ordered extra firetrucks to respond to incidents in the dead zones to work as a communications "relay team."
But reports show firefighters often can't communicate from inside a building to their squad members outside.
The relay communication team is "only a band-aid solution to a major safety issue that needs to be corrected as soon as possible and avert a tragedy waiting to happen," a May 27 memo to Chief Few from Lt. William L. Spencer states.
"When we're in those buildings and an order is given to evacuate, that message comes out over the radio, and the people inside won't hear it," said Lt. Sneed of the firefighters association.
Motorola spokesman Steve Gorecki yesterday told The Times that "Motorola delivered what we were contracted for and what D.C. fire department asked for."
Motorola technicians have returned to help the department, he said, adding that "the system is not broke."
"We are not fixing it. It is working exactly the way it was designed to" according to specifications from the department, he said. "We are now working to enhance that."
Chief Few yesterday did not deny the radio system had troubles, saying he was stuck with a 10-year-old commitment and was working to fix the problems.
"I never let this one go undone or go on the back burner," he said.
The chief said he has made the radio system a priority, calling Motorola officials and a consulting company to troubleshoot the system.
The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department needs 19 antennae but has only four, Chief Few said. He plans to push for legislation requiring contractors to install booster antennae on new buildings.
"This was not my problem, but I inherited it," he said.
"I'm not going to make any excuses. I'm going to find a final solution for it."
Chief Few said he could not work out the kinks before the system went into service because "the commitment was already made" and the former system "was antiquated."
Adrian Thompson, assistant fire chief for Operations, said engineering consultants are testing locations for antennae, towers and signal boosters in the city, and a department plan to install the antennae is "on the fast track" inside of six months.
Fire department tests of the radio system over the past eight months also contradict claims by Motorola.
In "intelligibility tests" of the system in 34 locations, Motorola found only six spots — including FBI headquarters and the State Department — where an operator had trouble hearing a message, said the company's undated "coverage acceptance test report."
That test was conducted only downtown and excluded the Northeast and Southeast quadrants, documents showed.
But tests conducted by firefighters and department officials found the radios did not work properly in many of those spots, such as the MCI Center, Martin Luther King Library, the Commerce Department and the Mayflower Hotel, among more than a dozen others.
Mr. Gorecki, of Motorola, said he could not comment about differences between the tests, but he repeated that his company delivered the system that was specified.
"We continue to work with the fire department on the system that they requested," he said.


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