Emergency Responders To Get On Same Frequency

SI Advance - October 12, 2009


Public Safety Radio Network Will Finally Propel New York City Communications Into The 21st Century

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- The distress call came in to FDNY Staten Island dispatch at around 4 p.m. last Monday: A sailboat stranded in the choppy waters off Great Kills Harbor.

"Do we know how many people are on it? Is anyone hurt?" a scratchy radio voice asked.

The succession of radio calls to answer those questions -- back and forth on separate channels for Island dispatch, the FDNY marine unit and FDNY command -- demonstrated what many experts have decried for years: The city's first responders are literally not on the same wavelength.

That's about to change, as the city nears completion of a $75-million public safety radio network that will finally propel New York City communications into the 21st century.

The new technology means Staten Island fire dispatch will no longer have to share a frequency with the Bronx, which often caused confusion and slower response times; it means the South Shore will no longer be one big radio dead spot, and it means emergency teams across all five boroughs, whether from the FDNY, NYPD, the Coast Guard or the Parks Department, will be able to talk to each other with a simple push of a button, instead of lugging around three separate radios and mobile communication equipment to coordinate their efforts.

"The switch from the VHF to UHF channel is a technological jump akin to going from AM to FM radio," said Stephen Harte, the associate commissioner of the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) who has been overseeing the project.

The FDNY is currently phasing in the UHF Channel 16 system to its dispatch unit. Once complete, it will provide more clarity, interoperability with dozens of agencies and more than 10 times the range of the current one.

The "ultra high frequency" band, a large swath of channels formerly used for television broadcasts, was made available for public safety agencies by the Federal Communications Commission more than a decade ago. But it was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that provided the impetus for city officials to make the switch.

The McKinsey Report -- a five-month study commissioned by the city after the attacks -- concluded that although the FDNY helped rescue more than 25,000 people from the World Trade Center, their response was hampered by poor radio communications and a lack of coordination with other agencies. Because of incompatible radios and overcrowded frequencies, firefighters, police and emergency workers could not talk to each other.

On the Island, those crowded VHF bands have been a source of frustration for decades. The borough has long shared a radio frequency with the Bronx, while the other three boroughs have their own frequencies, and a fifth was dedicated as citywide. The common frequency led to mix-ups because both the Bronx and the Island use two-digit company numbers -- Engine 80 in the Bronx often sounds like Ladder Co. 80 in Port Richmond over the squawky, muffled dispatch channel.

City Councilman James Oddo (R-Mid-Island/Brooklyn) has been advocating for the borough to get its own channel since March 2001, just after the FDNY had to recall $4.3 million worth of faulty two-way radios. Oddo said the Island has been fortunate to not have had an injury or death as a result of the problematic communication.

"We ask [our emergency responders] to take risks, and we have an obligation to reduce those risks as much as possible. That used to mean giving them the proper equipment, like a bulletproof vest. In 2009, that means having the very best in technology to prevent loss of life," Oddo said.

The city began working on the new network in early 2006, awarding a contract to Illinois-based communications giant Motorola. The system required building or retrofitting 30 broadcast sites across the city -- there are seven sites on the Island, the most for any borough -- and replacing 10,700 portable radios.

About half of the money was used to build the "backend" system of servers, switches and backup power at Metrotech, the city's public safety command center in Brooklyn. They also built a complete replica of that system at an undisclosed location in Queens as a safeguard against failure, or worse, another disaster similar to Sept. 11.

During testing this spring, Felix Melendez, director of operations of the Citywide Radio Network and a former Huguenot resident, traveled hundreds of miles with radio in hand to ensure there were no longer any dead spots in the five boroughs.

"We literally drove around the Island multiple times saying 'Can you hear me now?'" said Melendez, who added that he now can hear transmissions from the Staten Island FDNY Dispatch at his home on the New Jersey Shore.

The radio move is part of a larger effort to transform public safety into a high-tech and efficient operation. Since Sept. 11, the city has also built a $500 million wireless network that will let FDNY crews rushing to fires instantly download the layouts of burning buildings or give police quick access to suspects' fingerprints.

This spring, the FDNY plans to run a pilot program of touch-screen "smart boards" in state-of-the-art Mobile Command Center vehicles, that can be used to manage large-scale incidents at the scene.