- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

When you're driving along, listening to an AM station on your car radio, what happens when you drive into a tunnel? You lose the signal, of course, and all you hear is static until you're back out in the open. If you're listening to an FM station, you never lose the signal because the FM frequencies penetrate the steel and concrete of the tunnel. D.C. firefighters and rescue workers, who brave flames and smoke every day, are encountering more and more so-called dead zones where their new radios don't function. That's no minor inconvenience. It's a real threat to the lives of these courageous folks and those they protect.

Firefighters' radios don't work in so many places that firefighters are often resorting to their personal cell phones. One of the obvious lessons of Sept. 11 is that we can't fail to give firefighters every tool they need to do their job.

One likely reason the firefighters' radios are failing is the frequencies they are assigned. For many years, public-safety communications have been assigned frequencies in the same band that TV channels 2-13 and civil aviation about 20 to 200 megahertz. Firefighters, police and ambulance services operated in the low-band VHF range. But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in its wisdom, is moving public safety to higher frequencies (around 800 MHz) to make room on the lower frequencies for more cell phone traffic.

The problem with this approach is that the FCC decisions are running contrary to the law. No, not the laws of Congress or the District. The laws of physics. As one college professor of fond memory often told us, the laws of physics are the same wherever you go. You can't violate them, and really bad things happen when you try. Such as having firefighters lose contact with each other inside places like Union Station, MCI Center and the Mayflower Hotel. The frequency question which frequencies best penetrate buildings, monuments and, yes, traffic tunnels is one no bureaucratic decision can answer.

The District has spent more than $5 million on a new 800 MHz system. Its failures will be the cause of much finger-pointing. But when you get what you asked for, there's no one to blame but yourself. It's time for the District to ask the FCC for permission to move the frequencies of the public-safety communications systems back down to ranges where they can function reliably. And, if it costs another $5 million to modify or replace the radios, so be it.

This isn't just a D.C. problem. Firefighters around the country are encountering the same failures. The FCC must deal with the problem nationally and quickly. If the problem isn't solved promptly, the next dead zone may have a body count that includes people, not just radios.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide