FDNY set to test new radios Monday

Program to use Island companies in an effort to prevent communication problems like those on Sept. 11


Tuesday, August 20, 2002

By HEIDI SINGER
ADVANCE CITY HALL BUREAU



Beginning Monday, firefighters on Staten Island will use more powerful radios in a pilot program the Fire Department hopes could save lives if another large-scale disaster strikes.

On Sept. 11, according to union officials and published reports, up to 100 firefighters were unable to hear a chief's direct order to evacuate Tower 1 before it collapsed.

As a result of this and other problems, the city hired a private firm to examine how it could improve radio communications and its entire emergency response system.

After five months of study, the private consultants, McKinsey & Co., offered recommendations to beef up the department's emergency response. The results of the study were released officially yesterday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and top FDNY brass.

Under the two-month pilot plan, which was reported by the Advance on Aug. 7, radios will be dispatched to every firefighter on Staten Island and to companies in Brooklyn that sometimes cross into this borough.

The radios eventually will be able to use 48 channels, including police frequencies, said Sal Cassano, Fire Department chief of operations, and will feature better voice quality and stronger penetration into buildings. Most importantly, he added, each radio will include an emergency button for firefighters in distress.

Preliminary tests indicate that fire and police radio systems can work together, according to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

"We're going to put them through the daily grind of fire and emergency operations," said Cassano of the radios, which have been tested in drills for two months.

In announcing the change, Bloomberg said the city would replace its radios a dozen times, if necessary, in order to get the best equipment.

Staten Island was chosen as a pilot site because the borough is the most fully contained, he said, with fewer units crossing in and out.

But union officials have criticized the decision to use Staten Island, saying it doesn't provide a large enough variety of response situations to be useful. One of the thorniest problems with radios, for example, is the loss of communications in tall buildings. Staten Island has only a few buildings taller than seven stories, and also lacks subways and tunnels, two areas traditionally plagued by communications problems.

And no amount of extra channels will solve the biggest dangers -- the lack of repeaters to amplify signals within tall buildings, or remote receiving sites, which act like antennas to pick up signals, said Donald J. Ruland, Staten Island trustee for the United Firefighters Association.

"Without the infrastructure, they can't change physics," he said.

Improving communications with other agencies, like the Police Department, will help commanders, Ruland said, but will do nothing to fight the "dead spots" ordinary firefighters routinely face in tall buildings such as some of the Island's housing projects.

"I'd like to see the internal communications system completely straightened out before we even get into the area of outer-agency communications," he said.

There has been some talk of the federal government helping to pay for a mass purchase of repeaters for the city's skyscrapers. Failing that, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said yesterday he hoped that legislation could force the matter.

In announcing the recommendations from the long-awaited report, Bloomberg was careful to stress that none should be taken as a criticism of the way individual firefighters performed on Sept. 11. Instead, the auditors examined ways to improve communications and organization during emergencies.

The report recommended using the Fire Department's Operations Center to coordinate its response throughout the city, and using video screens with live feeds from police and TV news helicopters, which would allow some commanders to stay away from the scene. This could help to prevent the devastating loss of top brass that occurred on Sept. 11, which crippled response efforts.

The report also recommended that the Fire Department develop an All-Hands Emergency Response plan, with specific responses to terrorism and chemical or biological attacks. And Bloomberg stressed yesterday that the agency would improve its communications with the Police Department, with which it sometimes competes.

The report also recommended a more flexible system for providing counseling to family members of firefighters who are killed or injured when large-scale disasters strike.


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