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Saturday, September 24, 2011

RADIO PROBLEMS LINKED TO FIREFIGHTER DEATHS




Five years and $23M later, Chicago fire communications system isn't in use
City gave Motorola a no-bid contract in 2006

By John Byrne, Tribune reporter

The city has spent nearly $23 million on a new Chicago Fire Department digital communications system that still doesn't work after more than five years — a shortcoming back in the spotlight following a federal report that criticizes the agency for not having enough radios during a December fire that killed two firefighters.
Yet as costs mount and test after test fails, there is still no firm timeline on when the system will be up and running.
"Sometime in 2012," Roderick Drew, a spokesman for the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said Friday when asked how soon the 3,000 new radios would come online.
The switch to a better communications system has been delayed since Motorola got a no-bid contract in March 2006 under what the city's chief internal watchdog has said were questionable circumstances.
Chicago, which makes do with its half-century-old analog system, is the largest city in the country that doesn't equip every firefighter with a radio.
Investigators at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health cited the lack of radios as a contributing factor in the Dec. 22 deaths of two firefighters. The fire in an abandoned building in the 1700 block of East 75th Street killed firefighters Corey Ankum and Edward Stringer and injured 19 others.
The federal agency found that only five of the 13 firefighters who were in the building when the roof collapsed had radios. None of those firefighters provided supervisors outside the building with a description of the conditions inside, the report said.
But city officials say they haven't bought more of the analog radios currently in use because they're waiting for the Fire Department's new digital communications system to be ready. "That would be an expense we can't afford," Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff said Friday.
Hoff said a lack of radios was not the problem at the fire that killed Ankum and Stringer. The fire chief urged patience, saying digital radios have been problematic for fire departments in big cities across the country.
"When (Motorola) first gave us the radios, they weren't used to what we do," Hoff said. Over the past several years, Motorola has made improvements to the radios and the city's antennas so the equipment will work better, he said. "We're very close to where we need to be," Hoff said.
Repeated tests of the Motorola radios — most recently in July — have revealed problems with firefighters' ability to communicate with one another. Background noise garbles transmissions, there are dead spots and people inside buildings sometimes have trouble getting through to those outside, Drew said.
The firefighters union has been slow to criticize the delays in switching to the new system.
Firefighters Union Local 2 President Thomas Ryan said he wants to see as many of his members with radios as possible, but said he doesn't want to rush to start using the digital system. "There have been some dead spots, some problems with guys understanding each other" during tests, Ryan said.
"The bottom line is, we want to make sure it works before we start using it," Ryan said. "It's not a perfect system (now), but they're trying to get things to the point where it's useful to us."
On Friday, Motorola spokeswoman Matthew Messinger referred questions about the digital radio system to the city.
Chicago firefighters and paramedics use analog radios that are incompatible. If they want to speak to one another, they have to carry two radios, Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said. And if police want to talk to firefighters, a dispatcher at the city's 911 center has to connect them — a process the digital radios are supposed to eliminate.
City officials first said they were seeking a new radio system after a state report criticized the way emergency crews communicated while fighting a 2003 fire at the Cook County Administration Building, 69 W. Washington St. Six people died of smoke inhalation after they became trapped by locked doors in the building's stairwell.
And the federal government has been pushing emergency responders toward digital systems since Sept. 11, 2001, because they allow firefighters, police officers and other agencies to more easily communicate.
Under then-Mayor Richard Daley, the city awarded the contract to Motorola without a bidding process.
Motorola's long relationship with Chicago has been key in gaining it lucrative contracts to service the communications needs of the city's first responders without having to compete against other firms for the business.
"Motorola has been dedicated to the City of Chicago for many decades," a Motorola sales manager noted in a 2005 letter asking that the city award the company the digital radio contract rather than going to the open market.
In selecting Motorola without taking bids, OEMC officials said using the company would preserve "the city's prior investment of nearly $2 million" in Motorola equipment purchased earlier, according to city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson. But the city actually had invested only $350,000 in that equipment, according to a report Ferguson's office released in October.
"OEMC had falsified documents to push the initial purchase through an unrelated contract with the vendor," the report concluded. "OEMC essentially 'bootstrapped' a $23 million contract on an earlier, $350,000 fraudulently obtained purchase."
The cost of the Motorola system originally was estimated to be $14 million, but it has ballooned to nearly $23 million amid dozens of change orders. Meanwhile, Motorola was given another no-bid city contract in 2007, for $6 million to provide radio devices.
The larger Motorola digital communications system contract was scheduled to run out in February 2011, but OEMC granted the company a one-year extension.
Gary Schenkel, the new OEMC executive director brought in by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said getting the system right is most important. The city will start issuing digital radios to paramedics this fall, he said.
"We'll have the whole program ready to go in 2012," Schenkel said

3 comments:

  1. This is what happens when you have unqualified people managing the technical department. It all goes back to JA. To this day there are non-technical people making technical decisions about our radio and dispatch systems. Firefighters had to die before they decided to let the engineers build the radio system the way it should have been built in the first place. Until the city decides to put qualified engineers and technical people in charge of the communications and CAD systems these problems will persist.

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  2. I agree with you on every point you made, but you did miss one very important one. A system can be the very best in the world, but if you have an incompetent dispatcher then it will never matter anyway. Sometimes I don't know if i'm not heard, or just being ignored. It really feels like i'm being ignored though.

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  3. You must be talking about Keli M. On zone 13. She ignores all outside units. I hope she has deep pockets because she is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

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