Chicago fire chief defends delaying switch to digital radios

After exhaustive testing, Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff said he is still not convinced about the reliability of the digital frequencies or the number of transmitters

By Fran Spielman
The Chicago Sun-Times

CHICAGO — Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff on Friday defended his decision to delay the switch to 5,000 digital radios — even after a federal report blamed a shortage of radios, in part, for the death of two firefighters at an abandoned laundry last winter.

The Motorola radios were purchased in 2006 — under a $23 million no-bid contract — to prevent communications breakdowns like the one that contributed heavily to six deaths at an October 2003 high-rise fire at 69 W. Washington.

Five years later, the Chicago Fire Department is using only some of the radios and only in an analog-mode. After exhaustive testing, Hoff said he is still not convinced about the reliability of the digital frequencies or the number of transmitters.

"In a hazardous environment wearing a breathing device inside a building, digital frequencies come in garbled and broken up in some cases. It was not reliable," Hoff said Friday.

"Is it safe for us to just throw the radios out there when we haven't tested 'em to make sure they're safe?"

Gary Schenkel, executive director of the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said he expects to launch a "pilot transition" to the new digital system this fall and complete the switch next year, giving every firefighter a radio.

"This is not a commercial, off-the-shelf product we can just hand to firefighters and expect it to work. It takes a tremendous amount of work to create, test and validate a system that will work in a deep, urban environment," Schenkel said.

On Dec. 22, 2010, firefighters Corey Ankum, 34, and Edward Stringer, 47 were killed — and 15 other firefighters were injured — when the truss roof collapsed at a burning abandoned laundry at 1744 E. 75th Street.

In its report, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health noted that only five of the 13 firefighters inside the laundry at the time of the collapse were carrying radios. And only one of those five firefighters reported having used the radio to issue a mayday call.

The federal report recommended that every Chicago firefighter be equipped with a radio and trained on its proper use.

On Friday, Hoff insisted that additional radios would not have saved Ankum and Stringer.

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