By WILLIAM NEUMAN
March 7, 2007
First, the Police Department refused to use a $140 million system built by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to carry its radio signals underground in the subway. Now, the Fire Department has also given the system a failing grade, saying it is permeated with dead spots where radio signals do not reach.
It is a setback for the authority, which built the system and had defended its work by saying that despite the rejection of police officials, the Fire Department was using the system and was pleased with its performance.
That is no longer the case. The Fire Department is preparing to circulate a memo to fire units this week which, in a draft provided by the department, says that after many months of testing it has concluded that the subway radio system does not uphold the communications and safety standards of the F.D.N.Y.
Fire officials stressed, however, that they planned to work with the authority to fix the problems.
The subway radio system has been in the planning and construction stages for more than a decade, and the work gained urgency after the terror attack of Sept. 11 and subsequent attacks on transit systems in London and Madrid. The system, consisting of amplifiers and hundreds of miles of antenna cable strung through subway tunnels, was intended to revolutionize how public safety agencies communicate underground. Instead, it has fallen years behind schedule, run tens of millions of dollars over budget and encountered repeated technical obstacles.
The police and fire radios operate differently, and the two agencies have identified different problems in the system. The Police Department has rejected it because it says that widespread interference garbles communications. The police and the authority are working to identify a technical solution to that problem.
The Fire Department, for its part, says that there are many areas of the subway where its signals do not penetrate, including electrical and utility rooms, public areas such as passageways between stations, employee locker rooms and escape shafts that at many points extend from the tracks to the street.
Mark Bienstock, a program manager for New York City Transit, said that the system was designed to take advantage of existing antenna cable in the subway tunnels and that it was always known that there would be areas of stations farther from the tracks where signals would not reach.
This was not an unanticipated result, Mr. Bienstock said. That there would be areas of the stations that would not have coverage was known to everybody from the beginning. Theyre asking for enhancements to provide additional coverage.
He said the authority would work with fire officials to map areas that do not have coverage and come up with solutions.
Fire officials discussed their concerns with the authority in a meeting last month and plan to circulate the memo warning about the systems shortcomings.
The memo supplants a notice sent to fire units last July with guidelines on how to use the radio system. The memo does, however, give commanders the option of using the system in a limited fashion, if they test it and make sure it is functioning adequately.
The subway radio system consists of a network of street-level antennas that capture the Fire Departments radio signals and carry them below-ground to a network of amplifiers and antenna cable that run through the subway tunnels. It also works in reverse, carrying the communications of below-ground personnel to the street level. It was intended to allow commanders to speak directly to those fighting a fire below ground. It would also allow firefighters spread out within the subway system to communicate with one another.
For years, firefighters have used a relay system to maintain radio contact while responding to emergencies in the subway. In a relay, a line of firefighters, typically four of them, take up positions a short distance from one another, within the range of their hand-held radios. In that way, messages can be passed from one person to another, via radio, linking commanders on the surface and firefighters underground.
The memo instructs firefighters to continue to rely on the relay system.
Officials have begun to discuss ways to improve the system, such as by adding antenna cable, so that it will meet the needs of the Fire Department. It is expected that the Fire Department will share the cost of the improvements.
Its only been through the sort of exhaustive testing thats gone on that weve found these areas that are of concern to us, and we dont want to rely on the system until its as close to 100 percent as we can make it, said Francis X. Gribbon, a Fire Department spokesman.
The Police Department has been less willing to contribute financially. The authority has estimated it will cost $20 million to fix the interference problem identified by the Police Department, but police officials have refused to help pay for it.
Elliot G. Sander, the new executive director of the authority, met with Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly last month and was told that the Police Department did not have money in its budget for the project. Mr. Sander says he has asked the city if money from another source might be available, but for the time being the work will proceed with money from the authority. It is in the process of testing possible remedies to the interference problem.
The authority has spent about $140 million on the system so far. By the time it is done, once all the improvements have been added in, it will have cost more than $210 million.