Twelve days before Sept. 11, 2001, the Washington Times reported that Washington, D.C.'s $5.3 million radio system could not properly broadcast in more than four dozen locations.

On Dec. 3, Washington firefighters' radios failed at the scene of a two-alarm fire at a congressman's Capitol Hill home, complicating efforts to extinguish a blaze that caused more than $100,000 damage.

The fire department's radio system, installed by Motorola in January 2000, reportedly has had several problems because of an insufficient number of transmitters and antennas.

An antenna tower had failed a couple of hours before firefighters were called to the blaze.

The initial system specified by the Washington, D.C., Fire Department was for four sites and eight channels and was expanded to 16 channels to include the Office of Emergency Preparedness, said Steve Gorecki, manager of public relations at Motorola/North America Group.

“Motorola designed and provided the exact system that was specified by the Washington, D.C., Fire Department, and it meets and exceeds the system requirements as specified by the fire department when it contracted with Motorola to provide the four-site system,” he said.

The original system was comparable in coverage to other major cities, according to Suzanne Peck, Washington's chief technology officer, “[But it] does not meet the requirements of our firefighters. They require 100 percent coverage.”

Most of the coverage problems have occurred in downtown Washington — where the densest buildings are located, Peck said, “We also have experienced two outages since June. Most of the problems were caused by equipment failures, but T1 outages also contributed to system outages.”

You are not alone

Similar situations have occurred in other cities. In 1995, Lynchburg, Virginia-based Ericsson (now M/A-Com) installed a new public safety digital communications system for Kansas City, Mo. The city received what it had specified but not exactly what it needed. The new system's radios did not work in some buildings and certain low-lying areas.

So, the city, its vendor and its consultant worked together to upgrade the system. After spending $18.5 million on the initial system, the city forked over another $8 million to fix the problems.

The upgrade included a new radio tower, upgrading and moving another and buying new portables. Some tower antennas also were replaced.

Now Washington is in the same boat. The good news is the Office of the Chief Technology Officer has received a $45.5 million homeland security grant from the federal government for emergency information technology initiatives. At least $31 million will go toward the enhancement of the radio network.

“The District government submitted a grant request to Congress for ‘first responder’ expenses,” Peck said. “Washington, D.C., has been designated the Regional Incident Council Center for a 17-municipal jurisdiction area including and surrounding Washington.”

The RICC is part of the Regional Emergency Coordination Plan, which was developed by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The plan is an all-hazards emergency response plan that facilitates coordination and communication for major emergencies and disasters affecting the National Capitol Region.

The plan is based on the Federal Response Plan used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Spending the money

This public safety radio project is extensive. Washington has developed a plan to fight current coverage problems and to provide interoperability among fire, EMS and police.

“The solutions we have developed [for firefighters] include additional sites and vehicular repeaters. The system is expected to cover all but the densest federal buildings,” Peck said. “These buildings may require in-building distribution systems. We are trying to avoid the use of these systems to minimize the noise floor and prevent operational and maintenance efficiencies.”

The Fire Department and EMS operate on an 800 MHz SmartNet trunked simulcast radio system. The Metropolitan Police Department operates a 460 MHz conventional analog network.

The $31 million will purchase six additional sites at 800 MHz and a new 460 MHz SmartNet network that shares an AEB (Ambassador Electronics Bank) and Zone controller, creating a dual-band radio network for interoperability. The police department's network infrastructure will be completely replaced.

“We expect to reuse 4,000 mobile and portable Motorola radios. Approximately 1,200 of the existing radios will be replaced to support the new digital, trunked system,” Peck said.

The end result will be a dual-band, 10-site system. Some of the money will go toward a tunnel coverage system and vehicular repeater system.

The Office of Chief Technology Officer held a press conference Dec. 6 announcing a $17 million contract with Motorola for the principal components of the upgraded radio system. That particular contract includes the 10-site, 13-channel, trunked simulcast 460 MHz system and the 10-site, 16-channel, trunked simulcast 800 MHz system.

It also includes an upgrade to Motorola's 4.1 Astro SmartNet system and additional redundant components.

New interoperability

The OCTO's Public Safety Radio Fact Sheet ( states “The District's integration of the city's 800 MHz and 460 MHz radio systems will provide a seamless communications network between police, fire/EMS and EMA and will ensure that no public safety officer is ever in harm's way because of an inability to communicate.”

The two-site (with 10 simulcast remote sites), two-frequency system will be tied together with the AEB/Zone controller and will provide users of both sites with communications access across frequencies as if they were communicating within their own band, according to the OCTO.

As opposed to audio patching systems, this configuration will provide features such as unit ID, emergency button ID, call congestion, private call and other trunked radio capabilities.

The system also should allow District public safety personnel to “communicate with their counterparts” in neighboring jurisdictions during a major catastrophe, according to the fact sheet.

However, Project 25 was not the way to go.

“We explored the use of Project 25. Unfortunately, it would have hindered, not enhanced interoperability,” Peck said. “Most of the D.C. metropolitan area municipalities operate 800 MHz SmartNet trunked radio systems. As such, we are interoperable with all co-frequency SmartNet systems. By supplying a dual-band network, we will allow our MPD users to more effectively communicate with 800 MHz users by utilizing dual-band talkgroups.”

Of deadlines and delays

Washington must complete the project by Sept. 30, 2003, to comply with the federal funding requirements or risk losing some of the money.

The Washington Times reported on Dec. 7 that the construction of the new system had been delayed because the OCTO's contract with Motorola did not include 1,200 radios for the Metropolitan Police Department, a backup microwave antenna system or a transmitter diagnostic system.

However, Gorecki said that portables for police would be purchased from Motorola once the new system was installed in 2003.

He also said that the system was using T1s instead of microwave for backup and that “Washington did purchase MOSCAD monitoring for diagnostics.”

The OCTO maintains that the project will be finished on time and in fact, it has been accelerated.

“Because of the need for the increased firefighter coverage and the state of the 30-year-old Metropolitan Police Department network, we have dramatically accelerated the schedule,” Peck said.

The completion date is July 31, 2003.

“The scheduled completion date of July 31 is aggressive but achievable. The schedule obtained by the Times several months ago was a draft schedule and did not reflect the final schedule,” Peck said. “There has been no delay.”

Help is on the way

Firefighters have had to find ways to keep communicating despite past problems. They have used cell phones or switched their radios to talkaround, using a relay system to talk to the incident commander. The department has been dispatching an extra fire engine on every call since October to provide extra bodies for radio relay teams, according to the Times.

Calls to the D.C. Firefighters Association Local No. 36 were not returned, but Lt. Ray Sneed, president, told the Times, “I'm satisfied we have a deadline for completion, but tomorrow is when I'm concerned whether it will work or not.”

Immediate relief should come in the form of the vehicular repeater system.

“A pilot of the VRS systems is expected to achieve significant coverage improvements and will start in the first quarter of next year,” Peck said.

What does $17 million buy?

  • A 10-site, 13-channel trunked simulcast 460 MHz system.
  • A 10-site, 16-channel, trunked simulcast 800 MHz system (Some existing components such as repeaters will be reused in the existing four sites.)
  • An upgrade from version 3.0 to version 4.1 SmartNet system.
  • Additional redundant components in all sites (including existing) such as GPS and channel banks.
  • MOSCAD alarm monitoring and reporting.
  • Engineering, project management and other associated services.

Preparing for the Worst: Washington, D.C. approves emergency coordination plan

Terrorists changed America on Sept. 11, 2001, as everyone knows. The attacks not only caused Americans to pull together like never before, they also caused this nation to better prepare for any potential catastrophe.

One of the challenges on that day was the lack of effective communications across the many local, state and federal agencies involved in managing the attacks aftershocks. Public safety workers had to deal with rescue and recovery, granted. But other problems presented themselves as well. Commuters in the Washington, D.C., region had trouble returning home from work that day, due in part to clogged or closed routes out of the city. And unsubstantiated news reports presented the region's workers, residents and visitors with an unclear understanding of the potential dangers that day.

To meet this challenge and others, the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments adopted the Regional Emergency Coordination Plan on Sept. 11, 2002, to improve communications and coordination during major emergencies in the National Capitol Region.

The comprehensive plan, prepared under the leadership of the board's Homeland Security Task Force, was the first in the nation in the wake of the terrorist attacks to strengthen communications links between local, state, federal and private sector organizations, according to the National Association of Regional Councils. The plan is fully synchronized with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Federal Response Plan and addresses several potential emergencies including storms, mass demonstrations, bioterrorism and terrorist attacks.

“We know that COG's work, and the work of our regional partners, is not over,” said COG Chairman Bruce Williams, Takoma Park mayor pro-tem. “Thomas Jefferson said, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’ The RECP … is a new regional tool that enables local, state and federal government agencies and community and private sector organizations to better stand the challenges we now face and remain forever vigilant.”

The Homeland Security Task Force, made up of elected officials in region, members of the Board of Trade and federal officials, set at the center of the plan the Regional Incident Coordination and Communication System. The system provides a way for local, state and federal leaders to reach each other and coordinate within about 30 minutes of a disaster. On Sept. 11, seven hours passed before local authorities joined in a conference call, according to a COG press release.

The system can be activated any time 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It will use the Internet, cell phones and paging systems to ensure seamless communications among key officials.

The federal government has appropriated $320 million to the COG's 17 jurisdictions for new equipment and training for emergency preparedness needs identified early on in the process.

COG Task Force Chair Carol Schwartz, D.C. council member at-large, said that the region would move into a new phase as it tests the RECP.

“Taken as a whole, the task force has produced a comprehensive, first of its kind plan. Decisions made during emergencies will be better for having been made in a regional context that provides real-time, critical information,” Schwartz said. “The RECP will be a living document, not one that is put on a shelf to gather dust. This plan will be subject to frequent and rigorous testing and evaluation.”

The RECP and its communications network will improve regional emergency coordination in the following areas: public safety and emergency management; health; transportation; water and energy infrastructure; waste and debris management and communications.

For example, a regional emergency evacuation transportation coordination plan has been developed as an annex to the RECP. It focuses on moving people out of an affected area as well as moving required resources into the area.

The section of the RECP that addresses health, mental health and medical services incorporates plans for state, local and federal public health services as well as private sector organizations such as hospitals, social workers and the American Red Cross. The coordination plan for this segment describes four levels of risk assessment, the highest being a confirmed bioterrorist attack,

“As a result of the work COG and its members and partners have done, this region is safer and more secure than it was one year ago today,” said Michael Rogers, COG's executive director. “We are also committed to maintaining the RECP as a living document and to remaining vigilant in order to protect the National Capital Region.”

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is the association of 17 local governments working together for a better metropolitan region.

For more information on the Regional Emergency Coordination Plan, go to The site includes a Frequently Asked Questions pages as well as task force contacts.