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Improvised Radio May Resolve Fire Problems

It could end the kind of communication woes that led to deaths in trade center collapse.

November 29, 2002|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — A powerful radio improvised from $1,000 worth of parts could help solve the widespread communication problems linked to firefighters' deaths in the World Trade Center collapse, fire officials say.

The Fire Department is testing a prototype rigged from a personal-watercraft battery, a camera case and other widely available parts to correct high-rise communication problems that have vexed firefighters for years.

The radios were built last spring by a captain in the department's research and development unit. They worked so well in recent tests that the Fire Department is expected soon to ask commercial manufacturers to submit bids for a mass-produced version.

The experimental "post radios" -- about the size of a big lunchbox and weighing about 20 pounds each -- enable commanders to transmit vital messages through dozens of floors of high-rise buildings.

The radio has a larger battery and broadcasts a signal 10 times more powerful than that of the handheld radios every firefighter carries.

"We like the concept. Everyone is very excited," department spokesman Frank Gribbon said.

Normally, commanders use handhelds to communicate with other commanders and firefighters.

The more powerful radios could be used by commanders at the scene of an emergency. A commander could use the radio to talk to another commander elsewhere in a high-rise building. That commander could then also use a powerful radio or handheld to relay the message to firefighters.

The department has tried for years without success to guarantee that radio transmissions can reach firefighters in high-rise buildings, subway tunnels and other difficult locations.

It sent hundreds of new, digital handheld radios into the field in early 2001 without extensive testing, only to pull them back later in the year after reports of widespread problems and a mayday call that went unheard during a Queens house fire.

With the old analog radios in use on Sept. 11, 2001, many firefighters complained they never heard orders to evacuate the trade center's north tower before it collapsed, killing more than 100 of their colleagues.

The cause of the trade center problems remains unclear. But the Sept. 11 problems led to calls for a signal-boosting system that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The improvised system, which could cost as little as $50,000 to put in place citywide, has been performing well in both field tests and elaborate drills, officials say.

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