Philadelphia first responders lack interoperability training

By David Gambacorta
The Philadelphia Daily News

PHILADELPHIA — If Philadelphia is hit with a major disaster, cops and firefighters who respond are supposed to be able to talk with one another on their Motorola radios.

The need for training and practice was underscored by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when hundreds of cops and firefighters in New York and Washington, D.C., found themselves on the front lines of disaster, but unable to communicate with each other.

That vital cross-communication is now known as interoperability, a service that Motorola touted as a main feature of the $62 million radio system it sold the city more than six years ago.

While experts say that emergency responders should constantly practice having direct radio communications, the Daily News found that many Philadelphia police officers and firefighters haven't even been trained on interoperability.

"As far as interoperability is concerned, we haven't practiced as much as we've planned," Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said in an interview last week.

"More practice is needed, and we plan on increasing the frequency with which we are interacting with other jurisdictions," Ayers said.

The interoperability function has always been available on the digital Motorola radios that city cops, firefighters and medics have been using since 2002.

Mayoral spokesman Doug Oliver said that there has been some real-world interoperability practice, including at large events such as Eagles games and Live 8.

But why hasn't there been more training?

"I think the training issue gets overplayed," said Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Gaittens. "If [a disaster] occurred, we would just tell everyone to switch to a common radio band.

"It would be incident-specific. If it's a hazmat situation, the Fire Department would take the lead. If it's a terroristic attack, the Police Department would take the lead. Either way, everyone would go to the same band."

Although the act of switching to a common radio band sounds simple enough, union officials believe it's dangerous to assume that the task would be smooth in the face of a disaster without real-world practice.

"The crucial time in any big emergency is the first 20 to 30 minutes," said John McGrody, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"But right now, if we're talking about a terroristic attack, the people who would be on the first lines out there have never been trained on interoperability."

Dave Kearney, recording secretary for the firefighters' union Local 22, said emergency responders should be practicing interoperability daily.

"Even if we're at one- or two-alarm fires, we should do it for the sake of having actual practice, so if the 'big one' does come, it'll be second nature," said Kearney, a firefighter and former medic.

Ayers said that the Fire Department needs to examine how it communicates with surrounding counties in the event of a large-scale emergency.

"Those are the kinds of things we have to bring together," he said. "The training scenarios are key."

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