BY WILLIAM MURPHY
January 29, 2005
After years of delay, the death of three firefighters has prompted the city to rush through a new program to record radio transmissions at many emergency scenes.
A pilot program in a Bronx command should allow for a much better reconstruction of the events leading to the death of two firefighters there Sunday, officials said. However, there was no recording system in Brooklyn where a firefighter died in a separate blaze just hours after the Bronx deaths.
“There’s no question we will be able to reconstruct the Bronx incident much more completely,” Frank Gribbon, the deputy fire commissioner for public information, said Friday. “We will have a better idea of what lessons to learn and what to do next time.” Gribbon said the program would cost “several million” and would be done rapidly by fast-tracking it through the city’s contracting process. The Fire Department was considering such a system after three firefighters died in a fire and explosion on Father’s Day in 2001. Investigators had difficulty piecing together the events during the early minutes of that fire. That difficulty was compounded three months later by the attack on the World Trade Center where several survivors of the Father’s Day fire were killed. The pilot program cost $417,000 and required customizing a system to the department’s needs, said Donald Stanton, the assistant fire commissioner who heads the Bureau of Technology/Data Systems.
A computer with eight individual radio receivers was installed in each battalion car in the pilot program, he said. The system is activated as soon as the ignition is engaged and searches out signals on multiple radio frequencies. Transmissions are stored digitally on a chip in an onboard computer then downloaded on a personal computer at battalion headquarters. The information is relayed by computer to Brooklyn headquarters, Stanton said.
The lack of recorded conversations on the fire ground “are the real missing link in any investigation,” said Gordon Routley, a former fire safety investigator who is now director of Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives Program with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. “There has been a lot of talk about those who don’t have it and the need to have it.”
Currently, the city’s Fire Department sends a communications truck from the Field Communications Unit to serious fires, second alarms and up, to record Handie-Talkie conversations. Firefighters responded to more than 230,000 non-medical emergencies last year, including 204 second alarms and 52 incidents that were third alarms or higher, according to department records.