Philadelphia Inquirer 10-16-04
“… the Philadelphia Fire Department has warned firefighters to watch out for radio problems at 44 locations where the city has confirmed that cell-phone signals are interfering with public-safety radios…”
In a memo obtained by The Inquirer, the Fire Department has alerted members on addresses, buildings and neighborhoods where technical consultants have found a high level of “cellular noise.”
The sites range from specific structures, such as the Wachovia Center in South Philadelphia, to the entire neighborhood of Grays Ferry.
All the locations are areas where firefighters have reported radio problems in the last year. While these locations are in no way all-inclusive of areas where cellular noise interference may occur, they are known and documented areas of concern,” Ernest F. Hargett Jr., a deputy fire commissioner, wrote in a memo dated Sept. 30. One of the sites is an apartment complex called Artist Village, on 17th Street between Fitzwater and Bainbridge Streets in Southwest Center City. A few years ago, Nextel installed antennas atop the renovated building and took over a community room to house its equipment. Ann Hoskins-Brown, a community activist who lives nearby, said she was worried that a rescue worker or resident could get hurt if cell-phone signals block fire calls.
“It makes me really frightened,” said Hoskins-Brown, who is married with a daughter. “What if the Fire Department had trouble getting us out?”
Hoskins-Brown lives next door to another Nextel tower, at 25th and Christian Streets. She and her neighbors successfully fought Nextel in court over zoning violations and want to see the antennas dismantled.
Thomas O’Drain, president of Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said battalion chiefs had complained to him about radio failures at fire scenes, citing Grays Ferry as a particularly troublesome area. He said a commander told him he had to yell orders through a window to learn whether his crew had contained a blaze, because his radio was blocked.
“Back in the old days, before the invention of radios, chiefs used to yell through a horn,” O’Drain said. “Seems like we’re getting back to that.” Cities across the country are experiencing similar problems with cell-phone signals blocking public-safety radios. In most cases, Nextel is the source of the trouble, because its frequencies are sandwiched between public-safety channels in the 800-megahertz band of the radio spectrum. Philadelphia officials have been reluctant to disclose the addresses where they have detected cellular noise, because technical experts from RCC Consultants are still investigating the extent of the problem.
The Fire Department memo, however, was an attempt to alert firefighters to areas of possible trouble.
“RCC’s investigation found a lot of potential interference from Nextel and Cingular sites,” Hargett wrote to all commanders and rank-and-file members. “This noise interferes with portable radios and can make reception of the city’s 800-MHz radio network intermittent.”
With cell-phone interference, calls do not transmit from radios to control towers because of blockage from competing cell-phone signals. To avoid that, firefighters can switch their radios to an “analog” mode, in which calls are sent directly from one radio to another without routing through a tower.
But sending calls that way cuts out the dispatcher and leaves no audio or computer record of calls, which is important for documenting emergency situations. Yesterday, Joseph James, the city’s deputy commissioner of public property, said RCC Consultants was in the process of finishing a more detailed study of cell-phone interference. James said he recently advised Nextel and Cingular officials about the initial results. Once the RCC analysis is completed, he said, he plans to sit down with Nextel and Cingular officials to negotiate possible solutions. “We want to give them the first shot,” James said. Possible solutions include adding filters to signals and reducing the power of cell-phone transmissions, he said. “We want to sit down with the carriers and say to them, ‘Tell us what you can do to mitigate the conflicts.’ ” Leigh Horner, a Nextel spokeswoman, said, “We will work with Philadelphia to identify instances where Nextel may be contributing to the issue, and if that’s the case, we’ll work with Philadelphia to mitigate it.” Alexa Kaufman, a Cingular spokeswoman, said the company had received from the city a list of addresses where Cingular transmission might be the source of interference. “We’re cooperating to look into that, to see if there are any issues,” she said.
The city’s firefighters and police officers have complained strongly about the city’s new, $54 million digital Motorola radio system. Most frustrating to them are the frequent busy signals – which users have dubbed “bonks” – that they hear when channels are tied up or signals are not reaching transmission towers.
Cell-phone interference did not occur with the old radios because they operated in a band of the radio spectrum that did not include cell-phone carriers. A year ago, the city began to investigate complaints about cell-phone interference. But the problem is national. Last summer, the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates and allocates radio frequencies, announced a possible solution. The FCC said that if Nextel paid to move public-safety channels away from its frequencies in the 800-MHz band, it could obtain lucrative new space in another band of the radio spectrum. But Nextel has yet to sign off on the deal. And even if it does, it will take three years to reorganize the location of public-safety frequencies.