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New York City’s Public Safety Communications Three Years After

It’s been three years since the attack on the World Trade Center, which was undeniably one of public safety radio’s blackest moments. In particular, poor performance by the Fire Department of New York’s (FDNY) aged Motorola Saber III radios remains a source of controversy. As a result of not hearing the radioed order to evacuate, more than 100 firefighters, who were following procedure by resting inside the World Trade Center’s North Tower, died needlessly when the tower fell at 10:29 a.m.

Even today, information is sketchy; in part, because terrorist-sensitized agencies are reluctant to discuss their radio communications in print. Still, here is what we’ve learned from various sources.

FDNY/EMS: Are Technical Difficulties Temporary?

“Talk about the radios!” These were the words yelled by Eileen Tallon during the second day of the 9/11 Commission hearings earlier this year.

Her son, 26-year-old rookie FDNY firefighter Sean Tallon, died inside WTC #1 when it collapsed. “I’m very angry, because my son was in the North Tower not knowing what was going on,” Tallon said in an article in the May 20, 2004, Chicago Tribune. “If they had heard the [evacuation] order, he would have made it out.”

“There were about 100 firefighters on the 19th floor, sitting and catching their breath, taking a mandated break,” says Bill Bowen, who, along with FDNY Captain John Joyce, has just published a book called Radio Silence F.D.N.Y.—The Betrayal of New York’s Bravest (www.radiosilencefdny.com) that investigates what happened to the FDNY’s communications on 9/11.

“They were alerted by people exiting from the 57th floor that the NYPD had called for a general evacuation of WTC #1. However, they stayed where they were, because they hadn’t received a radio order on their FDNY radios to evacuate.”

The FDNY’s evacuation orders were transmitted to firefighters’ analog Motorola Saber III radios, many of which were 10 years old or older. The reason the FDNY and FDNY-EMS were still using Saber IIIs, which had experienced problems reaching up into the World Trade Center during the 1993 bombing, was because the department’s recently acquired Motorola XTS 3500 digital radios weren’t available. (Although the FDNY’s EMS Command was also using Saber IIIs, their major issue was too much traffic on the division’s two channels, rather than poor reception. This is because EMS units were posted on the streets outside the World Trade Center.)

Deployed on March 13, 2001, the XTS 3500s had been withdrawn just days later when a Queens firefighter running low on air couldn’t be heard by his teammates nearby, but was received by firefighters several blocks away. Two months after, then-NYC City Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi issued a news release demanding Motorola recall the XTS 3500s. Available online at www.comptroller.nyc.gov/press/2001_releases/01-05-028.shtm, the release said the XTS 3500s “are not appropriate for use by firefighters. A review by Hevesi’s office has established that the radios were never field-tested by the FDNY and that the department broke contracting rules when it purchased the radios.”

At the same time, Hevesi sent a letter to Motorola chairman and CEO Christopher Galvin in which the city comptroller wrote that “Nowhere in the documentation provided to us by the FDNY or Motorola are there documents indicating that Motorola informed the FDNY that the sample radios were actual preproduction models not yet approved by Motorola for sale to consumers. It appears that Motorola allowed the FDNY to unknowingly become a large-scale testing ground for the XTS 3500 radio to the possible detriment of New York City firefighters.”

This last doubt was reflected in an internal Motorola memo obtained by Newsday. Published in part on February 12, 2004, the memo asked, “Did we sell them [the FDNY] the wrong platform...to keep a $10 million-plus order?” Although Motorola’s Vice President of Sales for the Northern Division, John McFadden, acknowledged the memo as authentic, he didn’t characterize it as a corporate expression of responsibility. Instead, McFadden told Newsday that the memo was just part of a “debriefing session where we beat ourselves up and ask if we’ve done the right thing.”

The issue of whether the XTS 3500’s problems contributed in some way to the FDNY losses on 9/11—a contention that Tallon and 11 other WTC survivor families are making in a $5 billion lawsuit they’ve filed against Motorola—cannot be resolved in this article. However, it is worth noting that the McKinsey Report, which post-mortemed the city’s response to 9/11, had this to say about the FDNY’s radio communications: “The portable radios [the Motorola Saber IIIs] that were used by the FDNY on September 11 do not work reliably without having their signals amplified and rebroadcast by a repeater system. The World Trade Center had such a system, but chief officers deemed it inoperable early in the response after they tested it in the lobby of WTC 1.”

It is also worth noting that the FDNY lost a repeater at the 47-story WTC 7 building after the building was damaged by debris and caught fire. This definitely contributed to degraded radio coverage at Ground Zero, as did the apparent unavailability of the WTC’s in-building repeaters.

What we can say is that the XTS 3500s have since been reconfigured to analog mode, and now have access to a channel shared with the NYPD for interoperable radio communications. “These are radios that have been extensively tested,” said Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta in the New York Times (quoted from www.scanboston.com) “and I feel comfortable saying that they are tailored for our needs now.”

Given that the two-watt XTS 3500s still have problems punching into high-rises, the FDNY has also been deploying 45-watt portable repeaters for field use. “The devices can be placed at command posts to boost signals at high-rise blazes, subway fires and major emergencies,” reported Newsday on September 14, 2003. “They also allow for command posts to set up farther from danger. Noting that communication glitches were seen in the August blackout, Philip McArdle, health and safety officer of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said: ‘They [FDNY officials] are doing good, but they could do better.’”

The fact remains that FDNY’s reconfigured XTS 3500s have reception problems in high-rises, tunnels and such sites as JFK Airport and Yankee Stadium. “To this day, the 3500 still doesn’t work,” Bowen says.

Port Authority and the New York State Police: Replacing Their WTC Antenna Sites

In contrast to the Saber IIIs, the 800 MHz M/A-COM radios used by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—the agency responsible for the World Trade Center—and the New York State Police (NYSP) worked well, at least technically. There were so many people talking over each other during the chaos, revealed in tape transcripts obtained and posted by www.thememoryhole.org, that it was hard to know what was going on.

Unfortunately, the destruction of the Twin Towers took down the Port Authority’s main 800 MHz Ericsson EDACS radio trunking and antenna. “There was no communication, as all of our radios went dead with the collapse of Tower 2,” wrote Detective Sergeant Raymond DiLena of the Port Authority Police in his report on 9/11.

Meanwhile, “The NYSP also lost an 800 MHz M/A-COM Metro-21 EDACS trunked transmitter site when the towers fell, but our other five sites remained on the air,” says Sergeant Robert Jones, the NYSP’s mobile radio supervisor. “The problem was that we lost between 340–360 feet in transmitter height when we lost the South Tower. This affected our coverage of Ground Zero.”

With the help of M/A-COM, both the Port Authority and NYSP found a new home at the Chrysler Building. At 1,046´ tall, the Chrysler Building is 316´ shorter than both agencies’ former WTC 2 home. Still, it was a vast improvement over nothing, especially for the Port Authority. M/A-COM moved fast to get both agencies back on air. In fact, using a five-channel 800 MHz trunking system provided by M/A-COM, the NYSP was able to restore its Lower Manhattan coverage on the 12th. It didn’t hurt that the Chrysler Building site had four antennas and a combiner available, which had been left by a previous tenant. M/A-COM also supplied the NYSP with 200 M-RK 800 MHz handhelds.

Since then, both the Port Authority and NYSP Metro-21 EDACS transmission sites have been rebuilt at the Chrysler Building, and, according to Jones, the NYSP has upgraded to the latest M/A-COM ProVoice digital 800 MHz handsets.

NYPD: Soldiering On

There are few details available about 9/11’s impact on the New York Police Department’s radio communications. What is known is that the NYPD lost a 470 MHz repeater when the Twin Towers came down. To compensate, the department has added boosters to some of its existing repeaters and added repeaters at other undisclosed locations, says NYPD spokeswoman Carmen Melindez.

Conclusion: Things Could Be Better

With the exception of the FDNY, public safety radio has more or less returned to the state it was in before 9/11. Granted, the replacement sites for the World Trade Center don’t offer the same degree of coverage, but at least signals are once again moving through Lower Manhattan.

As for the FDNY, time will tell if the reworked XTS 3500s win favor with firefighters who depend on radio as a lifeline. The fact that the FDNY’s signals still have problems penetrating tall buildings, tunnels and major public structures like JFK Airport and Yankee Stadium is a real cause for concern. Even with the 45-watt portable repeaters that are being deployed, the fact remains that the FDNY needs much better radio service to do its job and protect its officers.

One can only hope that the remaining shortcomings in the department’s radio service aren’t made obvious by another event as horrific as 9/11.

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