- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2003

The D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer has completed a 19-month, $31 million upgrade to the city’s emergency radio system, which had proven unreliable because “dead spots” prevented firefighters from communicating as they battled blazes.

The formal announcement of the project’s completion is scheduled to be made Tuesday by D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, and will include a demonstration of the radio system from some buildings where communications formerly were impossible.

The Washington Times first reported in June 2001 that the radio system failed in several key locations such as Union Station, the MCI Center, the State Department and the John A. Wilson Building. But the problems were far more pervasive, often affecting firefighters on a daily basis at emergency scenes.

Since the communications system was brought on line in January 2001, radios frequently emitted a “honk,” signaling they were out of range, and firefighters routinely communicated using their personal Nextel cellular telephones.

“There are no more dead spots that we know of in the District any longer,” said Linda Argo, chief of staff for D.C. Chief Technology Officer.

Upgrades to the system included installing seven new radio transceivers and improving three existing antennas. The city also installed 63 repeater systems on rescue vehicles to boost radio signal strength at emergency scenes. The system improvement also includes a microwave antenna as a redundancy system, in case of a catastrophic failure with the communications system.

Mrs. Argo said the final transceiver was installed at Sibley Hospital last week, and that the project was completed by OCTO’s Sept. 30 deadline. The radio improvements were funded with $46 million in federal homeland-security money awarded to the District in February 2002.

“I think this is the singular greatest improvement in public safety in many years,” said Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice. “The people who put their lives on the line deserve nothing less than the best communications system we can give them.”

She said new transmitters and antennas in Metrorail tunnels should be completed by the end of the year and will allow firefighters and police officers to communicate underground.

“All in all, from a customer satisfaction standpoint, we’re happy,” said James Martin, the assistant fire chief of operations. “We’re running into very few areas of the city where we are not getting our messages in or out.”

Chief Martin said a stopgap measure of using an extra fire company to respond to fire calls and provide a system of runners to relay messages has been discontinued. He said an extra engine still responds to fires, but the firefighters are used to supplement water supply and serve as a safety team in case a firefighter is endangered at a working fire scene.

The new communication system is designed to put police and fire department radios on the same frequencies so public safety personnel can communicate with one another and other agencies throughout the city. Previously public safety radios operated independently within each agency.

The system upgrades still face an “acceptance test” by officials from Motorola, which performed the upgrades, and independent city tests that will include firefighters.

“As far as meeting the deadline, from that standpoint I think they have” succeeded, said Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association. “The jury’s still out because we have to go out as the end users and test the system.”

Lt. Sneed said firefighters will conduct tests in more than 100 locations around the city where “dead spots” with the radios had been detected. He said the testing period will begin Oct. 14 and should last about two weeks.

“We have noticed an improvement, but you still have to go out there and test those trouble areas.” Lt. Sneed said one trouble area was the 3rd Street Tunnel, where radio communications often were impossible. He said he has noticed that communications have improved, at least at that site.

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