- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

D.C. firefighters were forced to use cellular telephones to handle emergencies, including the evacuation of the Federal Reserve, for more than 10 hours Wednesday after lightning knocked out their radio system.
A lightning strike at the public-safety communications center on McMillan Drive NW knocked out two of the four antennas that relay messages over the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department's 800-megahertz digital-radio system, said D.C. Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck.
The $5.3 million Motorola system, which has been criticized by firefighters for failing in emergencies since it was brought on line in January 2001, went down about 3 p.m. Wednesday and returned to service at about 1:30 a.m. yesterday.
"Dispatchers had to use cell phones to dial into fire stations," Mrs. Peck said, adding that Motorola technicians responded "in a very timely manner."
Despite having an inoperative radio system, firefighters handled a bomb scare at the Federal Reserve, massive traffic tie-ups and other fire and medical emergencies relatively smoothly, Mrs. Peck said.
The most severe communications disruptions occurred around the two affected antenna sites at Georgetown Hospital in Northwest and St. Elizabeths Hospital campus in Southeast, said fire department spokesman Alan Etter, adding that radio communications were diminished citywide.
"It's an inferior system," Mr. Etter said of the department's radio system. "It's a system that was optimized for 19 antenna sites, and we've got four."
Battalion Chief Stephen Reid said the radio system's failure "tested our mettle" as fire and rescue crews helped 1,300 workers evacuate during a bomb scare at the Federal Reserve at 20th and C streets NW. Streets around the building were closed until after 6 p.m., causing hours-long traffic delays.
The Metropolitan Police Department, whose analog radio system was unaffected, was the lead agency at the scene.
The scare turned out to be unfounded, but rescue workers on the scene could not relay updates across the city to headquarters, Chief Reid said.
"We had limited communications in that we could still use the 'talkaround' function of the 800 megahertz system so we could communicate with our units," Chief Reid said. "The basic thing was giving updates. We wanted to get a few EMS units on the scene and let them know what we were dealing with."
Chief Reid said he was instructed to use his personal cellular telephone to keep in touch with the communications department.
"We had no communications, inside or out," said one captain who was on a medical call a few blocks from the White House in Northwest when the system shut down. "You can't communicate with ambulances. You see firetrucks going by, and you don't know where they're going. I'm thinking, 'This is bad.'"
The captain said he had to use his cell phone to call communications to find out the radios weren't working.
"The phone rang 20 times," he said. "When somebody picked it up, they said, 'Yes, communications are down. You're going to have to use your cell phone.'"
Capt. Kevin Byrne, the department's safety officer, said he was listening to his department radio at about 5:30 p.m. and caught a few words about a firefighter taking a hose off a truck. He said he thought it was odd because, as safety officer, he responds to all fire calls but had not heard this call dispatched.
He said he checked the dispatch computer and saw reports of an apartment fire at 13th and T streets NW. "I had no idea there was a fire going on four blocks from my office."
Neither did the crew of Truck 9, which was responsible for responding to that area, a fire captain said. The truck and its crew were on the road when the box alarm was issued, but they didn't hear their unit being called.
"They basically had to report back to quarters, check the printer for the address and respond to the scene," the captain said. "They were the last to arrive, and they were five blocks away."
Mrs. Peck said her office is exploring ways to back up its equipment but also must consider how rare a lightning strike is before committing funds.


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