Five years after Sept. 11, radio repeaters still rare in NYC skyscrapers

The Associated Press

NEW YORK CITY — Nearly five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, most city skyscrapers still lack a potentially lifesaving piece of equipment that allows firefighters to use walkie-talkies in the inner recesses of tall buildings, a top fire official said Wednesday.

Radio repeaters are found in only a scattering of Manhattan buildings, fire department Deputy Commissioner Frank Cruthers said at a ceremony celebrating the installation of a repeater system at one of the city's tallest towers.

The 48-story skyscraper at 4 Times Square is the world headquarters of Conde Nast Publications and the first of eight buildings getting radio repeaters this year as a result of efforts by the Durst Organization, one of the city's largest privately owned real estate firms.

A ninth building, the giant Bank of America Tower, will also have a repeater when construction is complete in 2008, the company said.

The system, which works like an antenna to boost and relay signals, allows firefighters responding to emergencies to use their radios in places signals have a tough time penetrating, including stairwells, basements and elevator shafts. The new generation of repeater in the building at 4 Times Square is also capable of using voice-over-Internet technology to relay phone calls from 911 dispatchers.

The Durst Organization is paying for the upgrades. The repeater for the Conde Nast building cost about $300,000.

James Boyle, a retired firefighter and former president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said the system might prevent some of the problems that plagued the department's response to the 2001 World Trade Center attack.

"No matter what anyone says, the radio response was not correct that day," said Boyle, whose firefighter son, Michael, was among those killed. "It's very important to me, and to all the families, that this is being done."

Equipment shortcomings made for chaos during the evacuation of the trade center complex.

Commanders on the ground struggled to contact firefighters on upper floors. Firefighters in the north tower were unaware the south tower had collapsed. Many apparently never received an order to evacuate.

The trade center buildings were actually among the few in the city to have a radio repeater system, but it either did not function, worked intermittently or was mistakenly believed to be broken by commanders on the ground.

Since the disaster, the fire department has been upgrading its communications equipment.

It now has devices called command post radios that can be carried into high-rise buildings that lack working repeater systems. Repeaters in vehicles driven by battalion chiefs have gotten a power upgrade. Firefighters are also using a radio band that penetrates buildings more easily.

But even with those improvements, problems remain that could be eased if more buildings had hard-wired repeaters, said Glenn P. Corbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"There are still a bunch of buildings out there that are in desperate need, as well as large sections of the subway system," Corbett said.

He praised the Durst Organization for installing the devices.

"It is a great leap forward," he said. "Other high-rise owners should do the same."

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