Radio Communications woes still plaguing emergency officials—–SOUND FAMILIAR?
By Ann Imse, Rocky Mountain News
September 11, 2004
Five years ago, chaos reigned at Columbine High School – and teacher Dave Sanders bled to death – because emergency responders from 36 agencies couldn’t talk to one another on their incompatible radios.
Three years ago today, on Sept. 11, 2001, hundreds of heroic New York firefighters died because their radios didn’t work inside the crumbling World Trade Center towers and the orders to evacuate went unheard.
And in January, 46-year-old Nancy Weaver diedin an apartment fire when Glendale and Denver firefighters, parked beneath her fifth-floor balcony, failed to coordinate a rescue. Officers on the scene, frustrated by different radio frequencies, called it a “communication nightmare.”Today, despite the findings of commissions on Columbine and Sept. 11, despite Weaver’s death, despite the need to prepare for the almost inevitable possibility of another terror attack, Colorado and the nation are far from solving this crucial communication breakdown.
But it’s not for lack of trying.
Radio problems are complex, and solving them is proving expensive and frustratingly slow. Changing out every emergency radio in the country would cost $18 billion, a federal report said.
Expense, a tangle of technology and geographic differences present Colorado officials with their own particular challenges.
Police and fire radios still don’t work inside most major buildings in Denver.
Agencies still can’t talk easily across four incompatible radio systems in the metro area.
The few channels that can patch between systems would be overwhelmed in a catastrophe the size of Columbine or Sept. 11.
Officers calling for help can be cut off completely when nearby cell-phone towers drown out their weaker radio signals.
Aurora officers can talk to Denver and Denver International Airport, but not to the Colorado State Patrol or to other surrounding metro counties.
State Patrol officers assigned to Boulder County carry two radios – one that connects to their system and one that connects to Boulder’s VHF system, which works in the canyons. Dead spots abound, including the Eisenhower Tunnel, one of the state’s prime terrorism targets, because there isn’t enough money for equipment.
State and local officials are shoveling money at the problems. They have poured more than $124 million into radio systems since Columbine. And they have agreed to earmark a significant part of the $100 million-plus in federal Homeland Security grant funds arriving in Colorado for radio equipment. In the next week, Denver is installing a small test version of a system promising to allow thousands of conversations between incompatible radios. Still, there is much work to be done before the state’s Homeland Security director feels completely comfortable. “Ultimately, we’d like to be able to flip a switch and talk to anyone in the state,” Karl Wilmes said.
Imagine a cell-phone system where Verizon could not call AT&T or Sprint could not call Verizon. That’s the emergency radio system in this country. The mess is partly due to radio manufacturers’ decision about 20 years ago to move to differing technology, experts say.
The ability to communicate with other systems didn’t seem so important because cities weren’t worried about catastrophic incidents requiring massive response, says John Facella, an executive with M/a-Com, one of the major manufacturers. The problems began when -radios shrank, and suddenly every officer could have a personal radio, Facella said. Then cell phones appeared, and radio channels were being used up by the wireless industry and emergency responders.Today, emergency radios in the metro area use four systems that can’t talk to one another: the old 150-megahertz system (VHF) and three different 800- megahertz systems. At Columbine, the commander on the scene had to give his orders face to face to officers from other jurisdictions and then have those officers use a radio to communicate the order to their colleagues, said Jefferson County sheriff’s spokeswoman Jackie Tallman. “It was a very frustrating ordeal,” she said. Eventually, the commander paired up SWAT team officers from Denver and Jefferson County, so each pair would be able to communicate, she said. That day, police had access to several cross-system group channels, but if all 1,000 responders had tried to talk on them simultaneously, no one would have heard a thing, Tallman said.
That’s what happened on the New York Fire Department’s main channel Sept. 11, according to The 9/11 Commission Report.
Today, 19 of the 36 agencies that responded to Columbine are on a state-sponsored 800-megahertz system started shortly after the school shootings. They can talk to one another. But those 19 still can’t talk easily with the other 17. Most of those 17, including Denver, Aurora and Lakewood, are on a different 800-megahertz system. Englewood and Wheat Ridge police, who are on incompatible systems, expect to switch to one of the two main metro systems by winter.Since Columbine, there has been one major improvement in “patching” different radio systems together, said Dana Han-sen, superintendent of communications for the Denver police. Picture a state trooper chasing a murder suspect on Interstate 70 near Denver and reports in to the dispatcher. That dispatcher calls the Denver dispatcher, who alerts Denver officers in the vicinity. The two dispatchers then set up a “patch,” so the officers can hear one another, Hansen said. The drawback is that it may take up to 30 seconds. “In a chase, 30 seconds is a long time,” she said. In that amount of time, the first officer may have moved a mile. Or be facing a gun.
The patch works for everyday runs across boundaries. But in a disaster such as Columbine or Sept. 11, dispatchers will quickly run out of patches. Metro Denver can make only about five patches at a time across incompatible systems. And the solution is not more patching equipment, because the districts would run out of channels, Hansen said.
If a Columbine-size crisis occurred today “it would go better,” Hansen said. “I don’t think it would be ideal.”
So why doesn’t everyone just buy the same equipment? Because each department likes the system it has. And for good reasons.Just after Columbine, the state started funding a long-planned system that works statewide for any emergency agency that wants to join. It has finished 83 of its eventual 128 transmitter towers. Since the state is paying for the towers, local agencies on the flatlands, such as Englewood, need not build their own transmission towers. They must only buy compatible radios. Total state and local cost to this point: $96 million.
So far, more than 17,000 radios from 170 agencies are connected to the system, making it possible for their users to talk to one another in a catastrophe, said Colorado’s telecommunications manager, Paul Nelson. That includes 6,734 radios in state agencies
such as the State Patrol, 10,600 for local emergency responders and about 100 in the hands of federal authorities. But the list of 170 participating agencies includes only seven of Colorado’s 64 counties. And it doesn’t include Denver and Aurora. Denver uses a competing and incompatible 800-megahertz system, which it purchased years before the state began building its network. Denver’s system is manufactured by M/a-Com, formerly Ericsson Electronics; the state’s was made by Motorola and two other firms.
Aurora recently switched from another incompatible system to the one used by Denver because it cost less for better coverage, said Aurora’s Mike Bedwell, the manager of public safety systems. Most important, police can now hear their radios inside large buildings in Aurora, he said. But the choice means Aurora officers now can talk to Denver and DIA officers, but not to the State Patrol or to other metro counties. Meanwhile, the mountain counties are on yet another system – the same old VHF they’ve used for years.
Boulder County is happy with its VHF system, because it’s used by every emergency agency in the county and they can all talk to one another, said Lt. Larry Stern, of the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. VHF also works well in the canyons, where the state’s 800-megahertz system does not, Stern said. “In order to get enough repeaters to make 800 megahertz work here, it would cost about $40 million. We don’t have it,” he said.
Stern sees another problem.
“Eight-hundred megahertz is computer-based, and if your computer goes down, you don’t have nothin’.” State Patrol troopers in Boulder County carry two radios, one on the 800-megahertz system to talk to their own dispatcher and a VHF radio to talk to everyone else in Boulder County, Stern said.
So what’s the solution?
Denver’s Dana Hansen hopes she’s found it with experimental equipment from M/a-Com that’s being installed for a test run. Called Network First, it promises to use computer software to digitize radio conversations and to connect officers speaking on any radio system into talk groups. One way or another, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials has mandated that every radio be able to talk to every other radio by 2010. The state system already complies with these “Project 25” standards. But that still leaves all the other radio problems: dead spots because smaller communities never had enough transmitters, cell-phone interference that leaves officers with radios that flash uselessly instead of transmitting and high-rises with no coverage at all. The federal Department of Homeland Security says the nation’s emergency-radio issues are so daunting that they could take two decades to solve. Colorado officials think they know how to get there faster.
“We’ve prided ourselves on creating a road map,” Hansen said.