Motorola radio woes at fatal fire highlighted in Phila council hearing.
- Posted on Fri, Oct. 01, 2004
Council hears of radio glitches at fire
Firefighters at a deadly blaze in August reported excessive busy
signals, a city fire official said.
By Jennifer Lin
Inquirer Staff Writer
Acting Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers has raised questions with city
officials about radio communication problems at the scene of a Port
Richmond fire on Aug. 20 that killed two firefighters.
In testimony yesterday before City Council, Ayers said he was
seeking information from the city's Department of Public Property
and Motorola Inc. about problems encountered by firefighters at the
The hearing was the second by City Council to examine persistent
complaints from public-safety workers about the reliability of the
new radio system. Motorola was awarded a $54 million contract to
outfit not only the Police and Fire Departments, but all city
agencies involved in emergency situations.
In the face of mounting reports of radio problems, the City
Controller's Office said yesterday it would launch an audit of the
"We want to know whether the system is accomplishing all of its
goals," said Tony Radwanski, deputy city controller.
Ayers testified that on the night of the rowhouse fire, firefighters
at the scene complained of an excessive level of blocked calls -
or "bonking," as they call it, for the busy signal the radios make
when a call cannot be completed.
Ayers also said there was no evidence that a special emergency
feature of the radios was activated. The new Motorola radios are
designed to automatically open up a microphone for 10 seconds when
an emergency button is hit. The so-called "hot mike" allows everyone
to hear what is happening around a firefighter in distress.
But according to department records of communication that night,
Ayers said there was "not evidence of audio from the hot mike."
Ayers said after the hearing that an investigation by the city's
fire marshal into the fire is ongoing. In addition, because the fire
resulted in the deaths of two firefighters, the National Institute
for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal office, is reviewing
what happened that night.
Capt. John Taylor and firefighter Rey Rubio died after becoming
trapped in the basement of a house on Belgrade Street in Port
"We want to have all the information available to complete the
investigation," Ayers said.
In July, Councilman Frank Rizzo called for a hearing into the radio
issue after the Police Department experienced back-to-back episodes
of curtailed service.
Yesterday's hearing was meant to update City Council on what has
been happening behind the scenes between Motorola and the Police
Department to fix the problems.
Deputy Police Commissioner Charles Brennan said the department
had "turned the corner" in terms of working out technical glitches
with the new system that operates on the 800-megahertz band of the
radio frequency spectrum.
But at the same time, Council heard about increasing reports of
problems coming from firefighters.
Ayers said that since the new radio system was installed in October
2002, the department has received 50 written reports from fire
commanders about radio problems at fire scenes. Forty percent of
those reports have been filed since July.
Michael Moore, the Fire Department's chief dispatcher, said that of
the 50 reports of radio problems:
10 were considered unfounded.
16 were attributable to hard-to-reach locations such as basements or
12 were referred to the city's Public Property Department for
12 are still being investigated.
City officials suspect that in some cases, cell-phone transmissions
are blocking radio calls by rescue workers and police.
This week, an outside consultant turned over to the Public Property
Department a report on cell-phone interference. Joseph James, deputy
commissioner for public property, told Council that RCC Consultants
was able to verify cell-phone interference at 44 locations that had
been identified as possible "dead zones" by firefighters and police.
James said the level of interference ranged from "marginal to high."
James would not release the locations but said they were "well
Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or
© 2004 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights