February 20, 2003
Lack of Radio Link Raises Deadly Peril
It's 6 p.m. on a busy Friday night at Fire Station No. 9 in downtown Los Angeles. When the alarm rings, a truck races out the doors to a hotel fire. Before the engine pulls up to the burning building, city Fire Capt. Carlos Calvio keys the mike on a two-way radio and quickly checks in with the Police Department, which also has sent officers to the location.
"Using these radios," Calvio said, "we're able to come in here and make sure the police have secured the scene for us, so we can come in, and I know my crew is going to be safe when we help the individuals in need."
Because they constantly work together, both departments believe it makes sense for firefighters to talk directly to police officers, but it's not easy. The problem is that the Fire and Police departments use different radio frequencies and incompatible radio systems.
The only reason that Calvio can communicate directly with police is because the Police Department gave the Fire Department 500 of its hand-held radios.
Fifth District Councilman Jack Weiss said there should be a better way. "Right now, the average first-responder LAPD officer and the first-responder firefighter are not able to talk to each other in real time. In an emergency, why would you want to have that problem?"
Weiss, who lists communications as number one in his Ten-Point Plan for Preparing Los Angeles for Terrorism, wants different agencies to be able to monitor and talk to each other directly. In addition, he said, individual firefighters should be able to radio individual police officers without having to relay messages through a truck.
"The reality is we may not need it today. We may not need it tomorrow," Weiss stressed. "But the one time you need it, you better have it. That's the lesson we learned from New York City."
In New York City, police helicopters broadcast warnings on their frequencies that the two World Trade Center towers ablaze in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack might be in danger of collapsing. However, firefighters working inside the buildings could not receive the police transmissions.
Experts are convinced that if the firefighters had been able to receive the police warnings, more of them would have escaped death. Despite all that's been done since Sept. 11, concern has been raised that a similar scenario could happen in Los Angeles.
The communications issue became particularly urgent when the FBI and the Homeland Security Department on Feb. 7 raised the threat level to Code Orange -- high risk of a terrorist attack -- and issued warnings to Jewish institutions and landmarks. The action has increased attention in Los Angeles on the communications problem or interoperability, which is the technical name for it.
Veteran Police Sgt. Kurt Miles heads the LAPD effort. He strongly believes that interoperability should be a priority.
"We need to be able to talk to people when an event is taking place in real time, and that's what we're developing," Miles stressed.
He reported that progress is being made in solving the problem. Computerized switching equipment is being installed in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Communications Center in East Los Angeles.
Miles explained, "We are going to be able to actually turn on our radio and talk with a dispatcher that can patch us through to any police or fire agency in the county, plus federal agencies like the FBI and the Secret Service.
The Fire Department has four portable versions of the interconnect systems. The systems let first-responders talk to each other, however, an intermediate step currently is required.
Weiss applauded this, calling it "better than nothing."
Little is being said about the initial testing of the communications systems, and it's not clear what the level of interoperability would be if a terrorist attack or a disaster were to occur today.
The required communications switchers are readily available and cost $100,000. Federal money is available, and officials are pressing for Los Angeles to receive funding. House members Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) and Jane Harman (D-Venice are on board.
At a time when local budgets are facing serious shortfalls, the decision to spend scarce dollars on communications equipment, rather than on services or personnel needs, presents a difficult choice, but Weiss has already come down on the side of communications.
"This is a matter of life and death to the people we send into harms way every day," he stressed.
Phil Shuman is a reporter and substitute anchor for UPN 13 News. He is also host of "Your Council District Close-up" on L.A. Cityview Channel 35.