- The Washington Times - Monday, December 24, 2001

D.C. firefighters say they are angry because nothing has been done about widespread communications problems that endanger their lives.
Four months after The Washington Times reported more than four dozen "dead zones" in the city's $5.3 million, 800-megahertz Motorola digital communications system, firefighters say they have yet to see conditions improve.
"They're unreliable," said one firefighter.
"Just about every incident we go on, we continue to have this problem," another firefighter said. "It's just a matter of time before another life is lost because we can't hear somebody call for help."
Reports in The Times cited several major landmarks where the radios failed, such as Union Station, the MCI Center and the State Department. But the problems were far more pervasive than first reported.
Last week, a firefighter demonstrated the system's limitations by taking a radio to a random office building in the city's business district. On the sixth floor, the radio emitted a "honk," signaling it was "out of range."
Outside, one floor below ground in a parking garage, it honked again.
After struggling with the problem since the radios were implemented in January, firefighters said, they had developed trial-and-error techniques to maintain communications.
When the digital radios fail, they switch to "talkaround" channel 016, a backup analog channel that allows the radios to work like walkie-talkies and send signals point to point to nearby squad members.
The squad members, who often must be within each other's line of sight to receive the signals, then relay messages outside to the incident commander.
One battalion chief compared the system to the children's game "telephone" and said he worried about the accuracy of the final messages. He said he has to juggle three radios in order to monitor the digital frequency and the analog frequency and to keep in contact with the communications department.
"I don't want to have it on my conscience that I missed a firefighter calling for a mayday because I was listening to another channel," the battalion chief said.
Firefighters complain that when they get "honked out" in a burning building, they have to manipulate a small knob on the radio while wearing bulky gloves and a mask.
In addition, switching to the analog channel deactivates the firefighters' emergency locator devices, and communications on the analog channel are not recorded.
The department has endorsed this communications tactic as a "Band-Aid solution." In October, officials issued Special Order 81, which would dispatch a "communications company," either a truck company or an engine company, to the scene as extra bodies for a radio relay team.
"A system of using 'runners' or a combination of 'runners' and a relay system are also options that should be considered," the special order reads.
Aside from the "communications company," the firefighters' union says communications have not been improved.
"Absolutely, positively no improvement whatsoever," said Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association.
Lt. Sneed is particularly sensitive to the communications problems. In 1997, Sgt. John Carter died in a blaze on Kennedy Street in part because his radio calls for help failed, according to a report on the event.
The union president pointed out that when similar problems were discovered with the same radio system in New York City including a firefighter's mayday that went unheard the radios were pulled out of service.
Lt. Sneed said installation of the radio system predates Chief Ronnie Few, but the fact that the problems persist is cited as a major reason for the union's October no-confidence vote in the fire chief.
"This isn't a priority to him as far as we're concerned," Lt. Sneed said.
In August, Chief Few denied he was reluctant to address the problems and said he would make correcting them a priority.
"I'm not going to make any excuses for it," he said in August, "I'm going to find a final solution for it."
Chief Few did not return messages from The Times last week, and questions directed to his spokeswoman, D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Director of Communications Lisa Bass, went unanswered.
Chief Few has said the department needs 19 of the 250-foot antenna towers but has only four.
One of those is at 5901 E. Capitol St. SE, a building that was scheduled for demolition in June. But a Department of Housing and Urban Development spokeswoman last week confirmed demolition had been pushed back to April 2003, granting the fourth tower a reprieve.
Motorola maintained that they delivered what they promised and said they were happy to work with the city on any enhancements the system needed.
Union officials agree.
"This system was predicated on budget, not on need," Lt. Sneed said.
During testimony before the D.C. Council, Lt. Sneed said he had been informed that Chief Few had not attended three of the five meetings Motorola officials requested to discuss solutions.
Last week, as part of a $150 million emergency-preparedness package for the District, Congress appropriated $14.5 million to the D.C. Fire and Emergency Services Department.
More than half of that money, $7.75 million, was earmarked for "response and communications capability."
D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, who chaired hearings on the communications problems in October, said the funds would be "well and wisely spent because there will be several levels of oversight."
Mrs. Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, said enhancing the system raised budget concerns but also cited a "leadership-management issue."
"I am concerned at the amount of time it's taking," she said.

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