- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2002

Firefighters' emergency radios failed on the scene of a two-alarm fire at a congressman's Capitol Hill home Tuesday night, complicating efforts to extinguish a blaze that caused more than $100,000 damage.
No one was injured in the incident at the home of U.S. Rep. David Wu, Oregon Democrat, in Southeast. It was the latest in a series of radio failures that have plagued the fire department's 2-year-old, $5.3 million communications system. The Washington Times has reported that previous radio failures have forced firefighters to ad-lib communications by using cell phones or foot messengers.
About 90 emergency workers and 30 vehicles responded to the 7:30 p.m. fire at Mr. Wu's row house in the 300 block of North Carolina Avenue SE. But instructions to firefighters attacking the blaze went unheard because one of the city's four antennas that relay emergency radio signals had failed two hours earlier.
One firefighter on the scene said the first-arriving fire engines could not tell later-arriving engines about where they were drawing their water supply, which delayed efforts to maximize water pressure and volume to firefighters inside the house.
"No one understood what anyone was saying over the radios," the firefighter said. "If there had been an additional hazard, no one would have known it was there."
Fire department spokesman Alan Etter said the antenna tower on the St. Elizabeths campus in Southeast failed about 5:20 p.m.
One of the antenna's computer boards malfunctioned, and Motorola Inc. technicians repaired it by 10:30 p.m.
In the meantime, emergency communications in Southeast were disrupted.
"This is very concerning. This system will be online two years in January," Mr. Etter said. "We have a vested interest in having a radio system that works properly. We want that sooner rather than later, but we're doing the best we can with what we have."
The fire at Mr. Wu's home started when heat from the furnace ignited a cardboard box.
Mr. Wu was not home; his wife and two children escaped while firefighters rescued the family's dog. The fire took nearly an hour to contain.
"When you lose a tower, it makes it very difficult for units to talk to each other and to talk to the incident commander, especially when they're inside a building," Mr. Etter said.
On the orders of the incident commander, firefighters switched to their "talkaround" frequency, a backup channel that allows the radios to work like walkie-talkies and send signals point to point to nearby emergency responders. The responders, who must be within each other's line of sight to receive the signals, then relay messages to the incident commander.
The fire department has endorsed the relay system as a temporary solution and since October has dispatched an extra fire engine on every call to provide extra bodies for radio relay teams.
Switching to the talkaround channel, however, deactivates firefighters' emergency identifier devices, and communications on the channel are not recorded.
In addition, firefighters cannot communicate with dispatchers, who would send additional resources if needed.
The Times reported last month that the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) is more than a month behind in a $31 million project to enhance the communications system by installing new transmitters and antennas.
The city received $46 million in federal homeland security money last year to upgrade the system by Sept. 30.
Linda Argo, OCTO chief of staff, said the new system is "on schedule and will be up and running by October 1, 2003."
She said it will include "numerous system redundancies" that will prevent the kind of outages experienced Tuesday night.

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