- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2001

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department will lose one of four antennas for its new emergency radio system as it searches for additional tower sites to fill dead spots throughout the city.
Department officials have been told the antenna at 5901 East Capitol St. SE will have to be removed when the building is razed in June. The department needs to add between six and 19 radio antennas to fill dead spots in its new 800-megahertz Motorola digital radio system.
The Washington Times reported on Aug. 29 that the department's $5.3 million radio system did not broadcast properly to firefighters in more than four dozen locations, including the FBI headquarters, the State Department and the MCI Center. Sources told The Times that firefighters had trouble communicating with each other and could not transmit from inside some buildings.
Losing the antenna on East Capitol Street would affect reception in many areas in Northeast, officials said.
"This is a no-brainer. They need to get on the ball with this," said a fire department source familiar with the loss of the tower. "There's yards and yards of red tape to get this thing going."
Fire department officials have known since June that a new site for the antenna is needed, but D.C. Fire Chief Ronnie Few said no replacement has been selected. He said the department hopes to have a new antenna in place by the time the East Capitol Street building is demolished.
Chief Few said a site recommended by Motorola at 3298 Fort Lincoln Drive NE is only one consideration. He said the department also is studying whether to use repeater transmitters on fire equipment if a suitable site for a replacement antenna is not found.
"We need to look at other avenues. We are looking to make sure we have a balanced system," Chief Few said. "If we can put some money on this, it will work effectively."
Chief Few and his top officials were criticized for delaying a search for other antenna sites to boost the radio system's coverage.
Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. Fire Fighters Association Local 36, said the department needs to test transmissions before it selects a site.
"I don't think their efforts have been adequate. We put these units in place and left the firefighters to believe they are working with a new system," Lt. Sneed said. "We had to go out and physically experience the problem before anyone admitted there was a problem.
"You still need those towers for the signal to travel to other areas. The problem we have is [the proposed antenna site] has not been tested. They are putting the cart before the horse," he said.
"I don't want to get into a position where we put towers where we can rather than where we need them. We need someone to run a test to see if this tower would be the best for our people." Lt. Sneed said.
A fire department source said officials have been trying to keep news about the proposed site from Fort Lincoln residents, who might object to a 250-foot-tall tower in their neighborhood.
Chief Few said the original price tag for the new radio system was about $12 million, but a lack of funds forced the city to purchase equipment that did not meet all the department's needs.
"We didn't have enough money," he said. "We did not do some of the things we should have done. I can assure you, I will get the amount of money needed to correct this."
The system which went into use in January needs upgrades, Chief Few said, which he estimated could cost as much as $7 million.
After the radio system went into service, firefighters and higher-ranking officials immediately began reporting problems to Chief Few and the safety office.
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. Firefighters also reported they could not transmit or receive inside buildings.
In addition, portable radios didn't work or messages were garbled in four dozen areas of the city that Motorola listed as dead zones.
Chief Few began sending additional firetrucks to be used as communications "relay teams," but an internal memorandum called the teams "a Band-Aid solution."

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