It can be fixed
Better radio communications could have saved some of the 343 firefighters who perished in the collapse of the New York World Trade Center towers. That’s the contention of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, a union that represents about 2,500 captains, lieutenants and battalion chiefs among the Fire Department of New York’s 11,500-member department.
“One of FDNY’s staff chiefs gave an order to evacuate the north tower, and 56 minutes transpired from the time he gave the order to when the tower collapsed, and no one heard the order. We lost 120 firefighters in the building,” said FDNY Lt. Steve Carbone, the vice president of UFOA.
UFOA President Peter Gorman issued a demand during an August news conference that FDNY replace the aging VHF hand-held portable two-way radios that were in use on Sept. 11, 2001.
Early last year, the department had replaced its older 3,000 VHF analog radios with 3,800 UHF dual-mode, digital-and-analog radios that were set to digital mode. But by March 2001, the UHF radios were withdrawn because of what Gorman said were complaints about inadequate coverage. The department re-deployed its older VHF radios, which then were in use on Sept. 11, 2001.
Gorman has called for a grand jury investigation of what he described as the failure of the UHF radios and the resultant delays in replacing the old radios. On Sept. 11, 2001, and continuing until the time of Gorman’s press conference 11 months later, FDNY was still using the old radios he described as “inadequate.”
The company that manufactures the radios, Motorola, said that both the old and the new radios work fine — but without radio infrastructure, no portable two-way radios can achieve the coverage that the union wants. Portable radio signals normally cannot pass through multiple floors of a high-rise building without a signal-boosting network infrastructure.
“The laws of physics haven’t changed. It’s not the radios, it’s the network behind the radios,” said John McFadden, Motorola’s vice president of major system sales for the company’s northern division.
FDNY asked McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm, to look into various aspects of its response to the terrorist attack, including its communications. The McKinsey report doesn’t speak to any possible fault of FDNY’s portable two-way radios, instead focusing on how to test them, and then to either deploy the new radios or replace them. But the report covers an evacuation order given by radio to firefighters in the World Trade Center.
“Firefighters and fire officers on the upper floors of the north tower (WTC 1) did not hear an evacuation order given by radio after the south tower (WTC 2) had collapsed. In some cases, these firefighters were told by other firefighters that the evacuation order had been issued,” the McKinsey report reads.
The McKinsey report doesn’t agree with Carbone’s statement about the evacuation order timing. The report said that the evacuation order for WTC 1 came after the collapse of WTC 2.
“Prior to searching for an exit himself, B1 (chief of Battalion 1) issued an order at approximately 10 a.m. over the portable radio for all FDNY members to evacuate WTC 1,” the report reads.
Carbone recalled FDNY’s response to an earlier terrorist attack.
“In 1993, terrorists bombed the World Trade Center. From that moment on, it was realized that our radios didn’t work in the World Trade Center. They had to use runners to get messages back and forth from the command post,” Carbone said.
McFadden said that the problem with the portable radio communications stemmed from the extraordinary number of radio calls being made by a large number of firefighters on one channel in the area of the World Trade Center. Normally, only a relatively small number of firefighters would be communicating in such a small area.
The fire department has seven VHF channels. Six channels have repeaters. Each borough has its own repeater channel for dispatching, and the remaining channel with a repeater is used for citywide dispatching.
That leaves one non-repeater channel, a channel designated F1, for communications among firefighters on the scene of an incident. Until New York City had an emergency on the scale of the World Trade Center, using only one channel in this way normally worked well.
Communications between fire units and dispatchers are relayed through repeaters; communications among firefighters on the scene of an incident — the “fireground” — are not. Among the firefighters, the radio signal travels directly from portable radio to portable radio in a mode called “simplex” or “takaround” by other radio users, and “fireground” by fire departments.
On a fireground channel, the fire chiefs and the firefighters can talk among themselves in a localized area, normally without interfering with any other units at other incidents. The reason is because the low-power (1 W) VHF portables’ radio signals do not carry far.
The simplex mode is often preferred for fireground operations because channel access is immediate and, typically, personnel may be in locations no within operating range of a network or repeater.
When fighting most high-rise fires, the typical mode of operation involves placing the incident command point in the building lobby where the command officer would have access to the building’s wired communications system that McFadden explained is required by law.
“Then, wearing breathing apparatus, the firefighters move to the floor below the fire and fight the fire as a team. For 20 or 30 years of fighting such fires, the 1 W radios were sufficient. On Sept. 11, 2001, that changed dramatically,” McFadden said.
McFadden recalled the CBS-TV documentary 9-11: Camera At Ground Zero by French filmmakers Gedeon and Jules Nadet and described how the camera followed the fire chief into the lobby of WTC 1.
“You see the communications, the first responders, talking on their radios. They’re starting to get organized, going up the elevator and the steps. Then the second plane hits. They have to split their command, and you can see the volume of two-way radio on the air accelerate,” McFadden said.
“At that point, it got harder for the firefighters to get things done. Nothing they had planned involved fighting fires in two-high-rise buildings next to each other,” he said.
Michael Patsalos-Fox, head of McKinsey’s New York office, wrote in an Aug. 21 editorial in the New York Daily News, “New York’s Fire and Police Departments are the world’s best, yet no police or fire agency could have anticipated the chaos and destruction of Sept. 11, 2001. We found that the fire and police departments sacrificed many lives facilitating the safe evacuation of more than 25,000 people, the largest rescue operation in U.S. history.”
McKinsey is a privately held consulting firm with 2001 revenues of $3.1 billion. Company spokesperson Andrew Giangola said that the company handles about 200 projects per year for non-profit and public sector clients to the tune of about $100 million worth of donated time.
New York’s Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scopetta and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley separately asked McKinsey to look at their departments’ responses to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack and recommend changes.
Some people have suggested that the heroic spirit that exemplified the firefighters’ efforts to help the public might have caused some of them to ignore their own evacuation order even if they heard it.
That suggestion figures into the report’s conclusion that some lapses of fire department discipline in the face of overwhelming desires to participate in rescue efforts led to some firefighters and officers to fail to coordinate their deployment with incident command, placing themselves at greater risk. Along with its recommendations for improved communications, the report calls for the department to more clearly delineate the roles of firefighters and officers, and to improve the clarity of the chain of command.
ISSUE: Radio coverage in high-rise buildings
New York City has about 2,000 high-rises — buildings with seven stories or more.
The McKinsey report said that field experience suggests FDNY personnel can communicate reliably in only a fraction of these buildings. The management consultant said that, to address this shortcoming, FDNY should immediately evaluate, acquire and deploy equipment, together with the associated procedures and training.
“High-rise communications gaps can be addressed with the deployment of repeating infrastructure that receives, amplifies and retransmits radio communication signals to improve coverage. Repeaters that are portable, mobile (truck-mounted), or air-based (deployed on a balloon) may help to mitigate in-building communications difficulties, but do not provide full coverage for high-rises,” the report reads.
The McKinsey report said that stationary repeating infrastructure can support reliable communications in most cases when designed, installed and maintained properly. This kind of infrastructure can be installed inside or outside of a building.
The management consultant suggested that FDNY pursue all of the available high-rise building radio communications solutions, and to do it along two parallel and complementary paths:
Test and deploy portable, mobile and air-based repeaters — McKinsey said that FDNY should complete rigorous tests with portable, mobile and air-based repeaters to develop and document guidelines for optimal use of this equipment (e.g., where to place the equipment for best coverage, which combinations of equipment types are most effective).
“FDNY should also develop an understanding of the limitation of this equipment. Once guidelines for optimal use of it are established, the fire department should acquire appropriate equipment, train personnel to use it, and deploy it,” the report reads.
McKinsey estimated that deployment of portable or mobile repeaters by FDNY would cost $1 million to $2 million and could be completed within six months.
New York City, through its Technical Assistance Response Unit in the police department, has tested a portable repeater linked by 2.4 GHz microwave to a JPS Communications ACU-1000 computer-controlled cross-connect. The portable repeater can be carried to a position near the fire in a high-rise building to communicate with portable radios used there, and the microwave links it to a radio interface at the base of the building to extend communications to portable radios used there.
Mobile repeaters mounted on pumpers or aerial ladder trucks may or may not be effective, because sometimes the fire apparatus must be deployed in positions that are unfavorable for the repeater. Trailer-mounted repeaters could be separated from their transport vehicles for improved positioning when necessary.
Pursue stationary communications infrastructure — In addition to accelerating deployment of portable, mobile or air-based repeaters, the FDNY must foster the deployment of stationary repeaters that will ensure that its personnel and New York City’s other first responders can communicate reliably in high-rise and other large buildings. As the second path to effective high-rise communications, the McKinsey report recommended that FDNY take three simultaneous steps.
Step 1: Require high-rises to support first responder communications.
The management consultant said that FDNY should develop and seek adoption of changes in the city building code requiring that all New York City high-rise and other large buildings, existing and new, support first-responder communications needs. The code should not mandate a specific technology or solution, but should require that minimum performance standards for communications be met.
One possible solution could be the installation of fixed, building-specific repeaters.
“The city should consider establishing a subsidy system to give incentives to owners of existing buildings to expedite compliance with the new building code. Such subsidies should be structured to reward speed of deploying equipment and cost-effectiveness,” the McKinsey report reads.
McKinsey estimated that deployment of this infrastructure for all high-rises in the city would cost $150 million to $250 million and could be implemented within three years.
Step 2: Evaluate the deployment of additional city-owned infrastructure.
The management consultant said that the most cost-effective way to ensure in-building high-rise radio coverage could require a mix of solutions. An alternative or complementary solution to building-specific solutions might be a citywide radio infrastructure that would be owned and operated by the city or one of its agencies.
McKinsey recommended that FDNY develop and issue an RFI/RFP for building such an infrastructure.
“The RFI/RFP should be written so that the city may determine the capabilities and performance of this infrastructure, along with the costs to deploy and operate it, and the likely time necessary for deployment. The RFI/RFP should also allow for the possibility of purchasing new end-user radios, including radios using different technologies and standards than the VHF and UHF radios currently owned by the FDNY,” the report reads.
Step 3: Try to leverage the NYPD’s infrastructure to meet FDNY’s needs.
The management consultant said that FDNY should work together with NYPD to explore whether — and how — the police department’s citywide communications networking infrastructure could be used to support all or some of FDNY’s communications needs.
McKinsey said that the RFI/RFP it recommends for the fire department infrastructure could be used to determine whether a common NYPD and FDNY communications infrastructure would be more effective for the city, rather than two separate police and fire networks.
“The FDNY should work with the NYPD to understand which facilities and assets (e.g., sites, towers, transport capacity, and power equipment) currently owned or operated by the NYPD can be easily shared with the FDNY in ways that would benefit both departments — should the FDNY or the city decide to deploy additional network capacity,” the report reads.
ISSUE: Testing FDNY’s new two-way radios
In 1999, FDNY purchased 3,800 Motorola XTS 3500 dual-mode UHF radios that were programmed to operate in digital mode.
“FDNY wanted digital because of the department’s future plans for data communications,” said John McFadden, Motorola’s vice president for large project sales in the company’s northern division.
Steve Carbone, vice president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, had little good to say about the original testing and the current testing.
“Before these radios were put out in the field, they were not tested properly. They were tested by some people in headquarters on the eighth floor in suits, and they said they worked.”
The McKinsey report said that a first attempt to deploy the radios in early 2001 was unsuccessful. The report did not say why, but McFadden offered some history.
“Under the previous administration [of Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen], FDNY took back all 3,000 VHF radios and handed out the 3,800 new radios. The extra 800 were given to some firefighters in job categories that previously didn’t have radios,” he said.
“When firefighters working a fire use their radios, they’re all on the same frequency, talking radio-to-radio, not going through a repeater. Usually about half of the firefighters have radios, so if 50 are at a fire, 25 will be using radios. Only one can transmit at a time, communicating one-to-many,” McFadden said.
“If a firefighter calls an officer and he calls back, everyone hears it. There may be firefighters in the back of a building, on the roof and at the sides. They’re working the fire and using the radio to call for more hose, or maybe a chief is trying to talk with a firefighter. The result is a certain amount of one radio signal stepping over another,” he explained.
“If two or three tried to transmit at once, the others heard interference. That’s what you get in analog: static or pieces of conversation. The firefighters came to rely on that static as a feature to tell them that someone tried to say something and couldn’t be heard. So they would listen to see if someone was in trouble,” McFadden said.
But McFadden explained that a feature of digital receivers is that they won’t allow interference to get through.
“With digital, if the signal is not readable, the receiver is quiet. Or if one person is talking, the other signals are quieted out. The firefighters were not used to that,” McFadden said.
The firefighters were not told how the UHF digital radios would sound different and work slightly differently from the VHF analog radios.
“The department sent a video about the new radios to each firehouse. That was the training. The assumption was that firefighters had been using radios for 30 years, all on one frequency with push-to-talk, and the new radios were not different,” McFadden said.
Carbone said that a firefighter in the New York City borough of Queens became trapped and made a “Mayday” call for help on one of the new digital radios that was not heard by nearby firefighters. Instead, a pumper operator three blocks away heard the call, ran to the building, and alerted firefighters there. It’s possible that interference, differing signal levels and the digital feature blocked the firefighter’s distress call nearby, yet allowed it to be heard farther away.
The incident led the department to remove the UHF radios and re-deploy the VHF radios.
The McKinsey report said that, although FDNY must evaluate the new radios’ performance, “they do have several features that could give them significant advantages over the deployed VHF portable radios. They support a larger number of channels, providing an opportunity to fit fire, EMS and interagency channels, including NYPD channels, on the same radio.”
The McKinsey report said that the new radios usually reach further inside structures, and they can be used in conjunction with the new Police Radio System now being deployed for the subways.
“All these features suggest that deployment of these radios could improve the communications capabilities of the FDNY, but only if they pass rigorous testing and evaluation,” the report reads.
The latest round of testing for the new radios has begun.
“They’re testing all over the city and finding that in subways and high-rises, the radios don’t work. So what the department has done is to take the radios to Staten Island, a residential area, for testing,” Carbone said.
“Naturally, the radios work there. They’re going to field-test 400 of them, and if they pass muster they’re they will hand them out to the field. I’ll be interested to see what happens in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan in subways and in hundred-story buildings,” he said.
McFadden said that the new radios were being tested in several ways.
“The fire academy has been testing them for months. Every weekend, the fire department takes them into high-rises and tests them. They look to determine whether the new radios can talk back and forth where the old ones did. They take two of the old radios and do a test count, and then the new radios and do a test count. No one has said that the new radios would perform well in subways or high-rise buildings without repeaters,” he said.
A second way the radios are being tested involves a pilot project on Staten Island, where radio-to-radio performance is being tested,” McFadden said.
“Staten Island is not indicative of the rest of New York City. But the advantage is that Staten Island doesn’t do a lot of mutual aid with Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, the way the other boroughs do with each other. For example, a pilot project in Brooklyn would require radios to be changed out in the Bronx, too,”
McFadden said that the object of the testing is to make sure that everyone, including the union, is confident of how the UHF radios work.
McFadden said that, if and when they are re-deployed, the new UHF radios would be programmed in analog mode on the fireground frequency so that the way they sound and work would more closely resemble the VHF radios. The digital mode with its other features would be used on other frequencies.
ISSUE: Portable two-way radio procurement
Steve Carbone, vice president of UFOA, has expressed concern regarding the way the department’s UHF portable two-way radios were purchased in 1999. These are the radios that were deployed early last year, only to be removed from service a short time later.
“FDNY purchased these radios without competitive bidding, which is mind-boggling, because you’d be hard pressed to buy a toilet seat in this city without competitive bidding,” he said.
“We are trying to get the media to realize that someone in the Giuliani administration or FDNY’s Von Essen administration took it upon himself to purchase these radios without bidding and without proper field testing,” he said.
“There are others who make these radios. Why didn’t we compare them? Maybe they’re better quality, but we don’t know that because no one has tested them,” Carbone said.
Carbone said that representatives of the radio manufacturer, Motorola had visited the union to speak with its president, Peter Gorman. He said that they told the union that they wanted to address the problems that the department was having with the radios and what they thought the solutions were.
“We had the feeling that we were being placated. I can’t get away from the question, and it’s true, if you want to sell the city toilet seats, they will bid to all the toilet seat manufacturers, and someone will get that bid. They didn’t do it with these radios,” Carbone said.
John McFadden, Motorola’s vice president of major system sales for the company’s northern division, said that FDNY only gets an opportunity to replace its radios every 15 or 20 years. He said that most of its portable radio equipment is about 15 years old, with some of it as much as 25 years old.
McFadden explained that a few years ago, FDNY department decided to replace its old radios with the newest technology. At that time, New York City public safety agencies had gained access to 124 new radio frequencies contained in UHF-TV channel 16, which is not used for TV broadcasting in the New York City area. The police department has adjacent frequencies, so moving FDNY to UHF opened the possibility for interoperable communications with NYPD.
McFadden said that FDNY was assigned 20 UHF channels, increasing its capacity compared to VHF, and the department initiated plans to replace its VHF infrastructure.
McFadden said that the city originally used a price book contract for the VHF radios that established a bulk price under competitive bidding and a vehicle for subsequent purchases so that they don’t have to go out to bid each time.
“They were using Sabre VHF radios. We no longer make them. You can replace the radios on the contract on two conditions. First, the replacement radios must meet or exceed the technical specifications. Second, they have to have the same price. With the XTS 3500 dual-mode radio, we gave them a superior radio and held the price. That’s how they got this radio” under the existing contract without a new bid, McFadden said.
When the procurement was protested a couple of years ago, McFadden said, a primary election to select candidates for city government, including mayor, was approaching.
“The city council held hearings about the radio purchase and then concluded that the fire department had followed the long-established procurement policies,” he said.
McFadden said all 3,800 radios were tested to meet specifications, including submersion in 6 feet of water for three hours.
“These radios have to be waterproof, not water-resistant. They didn’t want to put something out there that after three or four fires would get water in them,” he said.
“But FDNY didn’t do operational testing. The city spent time testing the radios’ durability and hardly any time teaching the users how the radio sounded different,” he said, referring to the difference in the way digital radios receive signals compared to analog radios.
Prior to a possible re-deployment, the dual-mode radios have been set to analog mode for fireground communications so they would sound more like the previous VHF radios.
How much it will cost
The McKinsey report gives some estimates for improving fire department communications in high-rise buildings and EMS communications for tracking patients. These are the key dollar figures:
portable or mobile repeaters
radio communications infrastructure (repeaters, cables and other technology)
radio infrastructure in Battery, Holland, Lincoln and Midtown tunnels
improved patient tracking by EMS
McKinsey’s redeployment plan:
- Finalize the codification of FDNY operational communications needs and the related technology features of these radios. For example, decide which of the following two features is more important: increasing the power output of transmissions over the command channels vs. the corresponding decrease in the radio’s battery life.
- Establish a detailed testing procedure and a comprehensive testing plan to determine if the radios meet FDNY’s operational needs better than the current radios, without compromising personnel safety. The testing plan should ensure proper, rigorous documentation of the results of the tests.
- Based on the test results, decide whether to deploy the radios.
- If the radios fail the tests, seek alternative solutions, including issuing a new RFP. If they pass, update communications protocols and procedures as necessary to effectively deploy them.
- If the radios are deployed, develop and implement a comprehensive training plan that ensures FDNY personnel are fully aware of the features of the radios and know how to use them effectively.
- Deploy the radios into the field with appropriate performance tracking and feedback mechanisms.