LAWRENCE, Mass. —
Lawrence firefighters know their safety depends on being able to communicate. Now there’s a new tool to help them do so, a van packed with communications equipment that can let fire departments from all over talk to each other during an emergency.
“It’s going to be a lifesaver. It actually is,” said Larry Foote, a communications specialist with the Lawrence Fire Department.
It’s training and equipment he wishes he had when houses began exploding and fires erupted in the Merrimack Valley last year.
“I guarantee we probably missed some communications,” he said.
On that day, the hundreds of firefighters converging on Lawrence had just one radio channel to talk on.
During the hectic first hours of the disaster, Lawrence Fire Chief Brian Moriarty ordered everyone to only talk when necessary.
“What I asked everyone to do is acknowledge the address. Call if you need help. But other than that handle it yourself,” he said in an interview with 5 Investigates’ Karen Anderson.
But staying off the radio is not how the system should have worked, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
In their report, investigators wrote that “the mix of radios” prevented good communications, and they called on state officials to improve what’s known as interoperability — the ability of first responders from different departments to talk to each other on radios that may operate, for example, on different frequencies.
The finding is striking, considering interoperability has been a public safety priority since the Sept. 11th terror attacks, when firefighters got trapped because they couldn’t hear evacuation orders over their radios.
The federal government began a large push for interoperability after the 9/11 terror attacks exposed weaknesses in first responders’ communications systems.
Massachusetts has spent tens of millions of dollars to upgrade communications equipment. But the lessons from Lawrence, as well as interviews and documents, cast doubt on whether first responders from across the state could communicate with each other the next time interoperability is required.
“So there’s really probably a training and exercise issue, both to train and exercise people who are experts in establishing interoperable communications, but probably also the need to do more training and exercising for people who find themselves as incident commanders,” said Kurt Schwartz, who was the state undersecretary for homeland security as well as the state’s emergency management director, until leaving public service earlier this year.
“A lot of progress has been made” regarding interoperability, Schwartz said. “So what this points out to me is we still have a ways to go to get to where I think we would all say is an acceptable level of preparedness. We’re not there yet.”
“And why don’t you think this has happened yet?” Anderson asked him
“Part of it is, knock on wood, that we don’t see and these large-scale, no-notice incidents frequently,” he said.
So what went wrong in the Merrimack Valley? The state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security won’t discuss the NTSB’s order until its after-action report is complete.
But documents we obtained — minutes from a state committee overseeing interoperability — show that one month after the explosions, the administration’s top radio coordinator, Melissa Nazzaro of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, identified “issues with (radio) programming” and the need for “additional education and training.”
She recommended “taking action now” in order to “benefit everyone for the next incident,” according to the minutes of the October 2018 meeting.
But more than one year later, an official with EOPSS said no changes have been made.
Nazzaro also recommended creating a “best practices” document to share with other communities, but the state this week said that the document is not finished.
In Lawrence, Moriarty said he is already working to increase the communications abilities of his department, but would welcome help from the state.
“I think it should be a wake-up call that we need to be better at communicating. It was a wake-up call to me,” Moriarty said.