Fire Dept Gets Better Radio But Needs Much More

Article from New York Times

The Command Post Radio allows a battalion chief to reach every walkie-talkie-equipped firefighter in a high ride.

The fire station's bell, followed by a dispatcher's teletype message, had Battalion Chief Peter J. Hart speeding off in an instat: there was a fire birning out of control on the 20th floor of an East Side apartment building.

The first fire engines and ladders had already arrived at the scene. But it was Chief Hart who was now rolling toward the middle-of-the-night fire with the department's new special weapon: a high-powered device called a Command Post Radio, which had fundamentally changed the way commanders communicate in high-rise fires and subway emergencies in New York City.

Once he carried the 22-pound, briefcase-size device to the 19th floor spot, where the operations post had been set up to direct the front line firefighters, Chief Hart knew that no matter what, he would be able to speak clearly with the other chiefs stationed downstairs in the lobby of 300 East 54th Street.

That night last month, he could quickly relay any information about the injured, recieve reports called into the dispatcher of trapped residents, keep other commanders up-to-date on the progress in fighting the fire and request relief crews while firefighters struggled to put down this particularly nasty blaze.

If necessary, Chief Hart or the other commanders with Post Radios at the scene could also switch channels at any moment to reach every walkie-talkie-equipped firefighter in the building, whether he was on the roof or the basement, to order an immediate evacuation.

The Post Radio may sound like a tool that is nearly as essential to the Fire Department as a flashlight, given that the Fire Department's walkie-talkies, like conventional cellphones, do not operate well, or at all, in the middle of dense high-rise buildings or the subways. But on Sept. 11, the lack of such a high-powered radio system has been blamed , at least in part, for the deaths of many firefighters at the World Trade Center who apparently did not hear a command to evacuate the north tower, after the south tower had fallen. About 120 of the 343 firefighters killed that day were believed to have been in the north tower.

"We now have the ability to establish an effective and clear command channel," Chief Hart said.

The Post Radio, invented by a Fire Department captain who borrowed a battery from his daughter's Jet Ski and hooked it up to an old marine radio, is the most important step taken by an agency that is trying to re-invent the way it communicated during emergencies.

But Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta says it is not enough. He and others concede that the department is nowhere near complying with the recommendations issued nearly two years ago by a consultant, hired after the terrorist attacks, that recommended enhancements necessary to ensure a completely reliable communications system.

"We are absolutely, unquestionably not done," Commissioner Scopetta said in an interview last week. "This is really a very good quick fix. But we need more."

Yet before the Fire Department can take the next step, it must resolve an intense internal debate about what the best final solution is. Some assert that all skyscrapers should install an elaborate system of permanent radio repeaters, mechanisms that strengthen radio signals. Some think the department should buy a collection of portable repeaters, which also might allow rank-and-fire firefighters to communicate as reliably as their commanders now can with the Post Radios.

Without these additional enhancements, even today, until a deputy chief arrives at a high-rise fire, there is no surefire way for the fire department battalion chiefs inside a building to directly communicate by radio to the central fire department dispatcher, unless they go out to their vehicles, which can slow the relay of information from dispatchers about where hazardous chemicals might be stored or where the best stairs are for firefighters to use to attack the blaze.

Today, a mayday call from a firefighter inside a burning building could also be missed, because it might be blocked if other firefighters are talking at the same time.

And in the city's largest skyscrapers - with their super thick steel and concrete structures that can block transmissions by the hand-held radios - commanders in the lobby, even if they have the new Post Radios, often cannot monitor radio conversations among the firefighters fighting the blaze on an upper floor, potentially slowing down reports on injuries or especially hazardous conditions. in this case, they must wait for a commander with a Post Radio, who is near the fire floor, to relay the information.

The choices the department makes about how to resolve these and other outstanding problems could well determine how much building owners will have to spend to do their part in improving Fire Department communications. It will also determine just how well the department performs in fires and other catastrophes in the years to come.

"Getting the right information, quickly, to people who must make strategic and tatical decisions in fires, it is a matter of life and death, not only for people in the building, but for the firefighters as well," said Jack Murphy, a retired fire marshal and vice chairman of the Fire Safety Directors Association of Greater New York.

The Fire Department has known since at least 1993 - after the initial World Trade Center bombing - that its communications systens were woefully inadequate.

"The radio communication was sporadic," one firefighter wrote, in a statement included in a December 1993 federal report on the incident, explaining how he tried to call for help, after he was trapped while trying to rescue a victim. "So I did a lot of yelling to communicate."

Yet a comprehensive citywide effort to fix the shortcomings did not really begin until after the 2001 attack, when Mike Stein, a captain at the Fire Department's research and development unit, was asked to work with Chief Hart and others to search for solutions.

The department already had installed devices in chiefs' cars that could take a signal from a special hand-held radio given to battalion chiefs, strengthen it and then resend the signal, increasing the likelihood that firefighters or other commanders at the scene could hear it. But there was a problem

"We could maybe reach the fire floor, but the firefighter's and-held radios could not get back down to the car," explained the inventor of the Post Radio, Captain Stein, 57, a one-time firefighter in East New York, who also spent two years working at his father-in-law's electronic repair shop. "So somehow we had to take the technology that was in the car and get it up to the fire floor."

Captain Stein, who now works as a consultant for the department, got an old VHF radio, the 12-volt battery from his daughter's Jet Ski and packed them into a plastic camcorder box, created the first prototype for the Command Post Radio. Five of the devices were ultimately built to test them, with Chief Hart and other battalion chiefs trying them out in live fires for three months, until the city ordered 75 of them, at $3,500 apiece, which were custom-made by a Brooklyn radio-shop.

The Post Radio signal is so strong it includes a nine-foot cord, allowing the chiefs to stand a bit of a distance from the frequence radiation it puts out. The radio transmits at 45 watts, compared with as much as 5 watts for the department's standard UHF hand-held radios. The battalion chiefs now wonder how they lived without them.

"It is a radical departure from what we had in the past," said Battalion Chief John A. Jonas, who was one of the 20 men and women who were in the north tower when it collapsed, but survived. "It is just a dramatic improvement."

There have been other, more modest enhancements since 2001. Hand-held radios firefighters now use operate on a radio band that goes through steel and concrete better. Similarly, the car-mounted radio repeater systems in battalion chief's vehicles are more powerful than they used to be.