3,000 life-saving radios go unused in Chicago

Published 9 August 2007

Motorola supplies city with sophisticated emergency radios, but aging radio towers can not take heavy digital equipment, so emergency communication upgrades must wait

Chicago, the City that Works. Or does it? The Office of Emergency Management and Communications has delayed until next summer the switch to a $22 million digital radio system tailored to prevent fire communications breakdowns like the one that contributed heavily to six deaths at an October 2003 Loop high-rise fire. For at least another year, 3,000 new portable digital radios delivered by Motorola months ago will remain in storage — until City Hall has the infrastructure needed to use them, officials said. OEM spokesman Kevin Smith blamed the delay on aging radio towers. They need to be reinforced or rebuilt to handle heavy new equipment, he said.

The Chicago Sun-Times’s Fran Spielman writes that the Chicago Fire Department will have to wait to use thousands of new digital radios until the city’s aging radio towers are reinforced. Of twenty-four locations designated as “base sites,” nine need “some degree of upgrading,” Smith said. Some of the work “could be characterized as minor,” he said. “Some of the towers are several years, if not decades old. In some cases, we’re going to reinforce them. … We have a functioning radio system right now. With that in place, there’s no reason to take any chances,” he said.

The October 2003 fire at 69 W. Washington killed six people trapped in smoke-filled stairways. An investigating committee recommended separate radio frequencies for receiving and transmitting calls to remedy a communications breakdown so severe that frantic 911 calls from trapped victims went into a “black hole” while the Fire Department changed commanders every time a more senior officer arrived. With at least six fire ground frequencies instead of two, the new digital radio system is intended to eliminate those problems. Police officers and firefighters will be able to communicate directly with each other while firefighters and paramedics will be using the same hand-held radios for the first time, instead of being forced to carry two radios to communicate directly.

The Motorola system also will have more frequencies to handle heavy volumes of traffic during major emergencies. Some channels will be encrypted for security. The new digital system is also meant to ensure uninterrupted communication, even in high-rise buildings where radio service is sporadic and difficult. Smith said the city now expects to start the migration to the new radio system next summer after testing.