The FDNY’s radios have not changed since September 11. “Firefighter radios still are not able to transmit messages in high-rise buildings, subways, and tunnels,” retired FDNY Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn wrote in his report titled, Three Years Later: What has Changed Since 9/11. “Battalion chiefs may carry portable booster radios (each weighing 22 pounds) that enhance communications between the fire ground commanders and firefighters’ portable radios,” Dunn wrote, “This so-called ‘quick fix’ is nowhere near complying with the recommendation of the McKinsey and Co. consulting report.”
The McKinsey report, "Increasing FDNY’s Preparedness," detailed New York City building owners’ responsibility by recommending that they “install and maintain permanent equipment (an in-building repeater) that picks up and amplifies walkie-talkie signals.”
Retired FDNY Deputy Chief Jim Riches recalls his experience with Motorola radios on September 11, 2001. “Motorola radios were ineffective on 9/11,” Riches said, “and many firefighters in the north tower never heard the call to evacuate after the south tower had collapsed. They had two evacuation calls one full hour and one half hour before the north tower collapsed.” Newly retired Riches was a firefighter for 30 years.
Motorola company officials stood by their radios and blamed the problem on the overloaded communications network on September 11, 2001. “If you have 400 or 500 people trying to talk at once, it’s a wonder anyone heard the transmissions,” said John McFadden, a company spokesman.
In March 2001, Motorola sold FDNY radios with a no bid contract. “Motorola is a very sore subject,” NYPD firefighter William G. Dennis said, “I remember the day the FDNY gave us the new Motorola radios. We were never trained on them.” Dennis went on to say that with the FDNY’s old radios, “as soon as you pushed the button your transmission would start immediately. These new radios had some sort of repeater in them so you had to wait two seconds before you could transmit. Messages were being cut short.” Dennis’ friend, firefighter Luke Healy, became lost in the basement of a house fire in Richmond Hill Queens. This was the reason why the radios were taken out of service after just one day. “He gave a mayday and not one of the units in the fire building heard it,” Dennis said, “Yet units responding from a mile away heard it on their radios. They issued the new radios to us without field testing them.”
Moreover, “Motorola got this as a no bid contract,” Dennis said. This means that there was no competition for Motorola’s agreement with the FDNY. “The then fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen was given a loan by Motorola in excess of $60,000,” Dennis said.
“Motorola and Commissioner Tom Von Essen of the FDNY made a critical mistake and cost many firefighters their lives at the World Trade Center,” FDNY firefighter Steven Mormino said, “The new radios was released to the field units without being tested and failed. Many Firefighters who were killed at the World Trade Center never heard the order to withdraw due to a lack of repeaters. This was known before the radios were issued but were pushed into service.” Mormino has been a career FDNY firefighter for 20 years.
FDNY firefighter Vincent Anzelone is baffled by what he feels is Motorola’s incompetence. “They do try to innovate for us,” Anzelone said, “but it is hard to believe we can have cell phones and GPS systems with pinpoint accuracy and clarity and all we get is static.” Anzelone will retire this year due to respiratory illness from 9/11. By January 2002, 300 firefighters went on leave for repertory problems. From January 2001 to July 2001, there were 274 FDNY retirements; compared to 661 FDNY retirements from January 2002 to July 2002.
Motorola’s digital radios failed within one week of operation. The 20-year-old radios were then redistributed to the firefighters which were used on September 11 and failed the fire fighters. “The city of New York and Motorola have had a very friendly and questionable relationship,” Riches said, “No contract, no field test and lies that other cities, Boston and Chicago, had ordered them and used them.”
Motorola’s relationship with the New York City government angers some firefighters. Firefighter Anzelone said that when it comes to the New York City government, “it is all about cost. The government cares nothing about human life.”
Retired FDNY firefighter John T. Vigiano blames the government over the company. “Remember, the city always set the standard and always went with the low bid,” Vigiano said, “I am sure if the city paid more, they would have gotten a better radio.”
Retired firefighter Nicholas C. Gaudiosi said the “government can provide the funds to research new technology and purchase equipment. Firefighters should decide what is necessary to do the job.” Gaudiosi is Vice President Director of Life Safety at Lehman Brothers global investment bank and former FDNY firefighter who retired in 2003 as Captain of Ladder 7.
The government “sometimes red tape at city level will lead to bad purchases,” Riches said.
While the issue of radios has continued to simmer among firefighters, other innovations have been accomplished. After September 11, 2001, there have been advances in firefighter safety technology include. Personal safety harnesses and communications units have advanced since 9/11, according to Anzelone. For second alarm fires or more, according to Anzelone, require better radios to hear fellow firefighters and a television to see inside the building. Safety Director Gaudiosi said that since 9/11 there has been “more accountability” and “a better plan of action to reduce the number of men directly involved, moving the command outside the immediate impact area.”
High-rise fires have their own challenges that must be met with new tools to conquer them. “High-rise fires are very hot and difficult fires,” Riches said, “Water is a necessity, blankets, thermal, over windows to prevent wind driven fire.” Riches also stressed the need for “radios to communicate any pertinent information” and “fans to pressurize stairs.”
“High rise fires have been around for years, and the FDNY has been battling them the entire time, usually with success,” Vigiano, “The entire world is nearly plastic and in an office building is nearly everything has a plastic base. Polymers break down and melt, giving off noxious fumes when at a certain temperature ignite into a fire ball.” Vigiano was a firefighter for 36 years.
Lehman Brothers Director of Life Safety Gaudiosi said other tools needed in a high-rise fire are thermal imaging, cameras, search ropes, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), personal removal device, and radios with a repeater system, SCBA, and rabbit tool. Anzelone also outlined the need for quality radios as well as “knowledge of the building, and working standpipes.”
Firefighter Mormino emphasizes the importance of “larger SCBA breathing bottles, improved radio communications, thermal imaging cameras, Haz Mat suits, decontamination trailersRadio repeaters handi talkie recorders” for FDNY firefighters.
“Firefighters adjust to anything,” Gaudiosi said.
Riches agrees with Gaudiosi. “Firefighters are more than willing to adapt to any new technology.”Not all firefighters believe that the transition is that effortless. FDNY firefighter Anzelone said the transition to new technology is going “slowly. We like to test things out before we go in to battle with them.”
“From my own experience and listening to firefighters,” retired firefighter Vigiano said, “I do not think this generation is adequately adjusting to some of the innovations that were introduced prior to 9/11.”
FDNY firefighter Mormino said that firefighters adapt to new technology “very well as long as there is sufficient training.”
Some firefighters do not see any progress being made. “Fires in high rise buildings are dangerous,” retired Chief Riches said, “Studies are being conducted to help in fire safety in these buildings, but we are still equally in danger before 9/11 and thereafter.”
Anzelone said there are no positive changes and the “radios still suck.”
Radios are one of the most important devices a firefighter carries with him. Retired Captain Gaudiosi said radios are “Everything, communication of changing situation so that firefighters can adjust strategy and tactics, request for help, etcetera.”
“Radio communication is critical,” Riches concurs with Gaudiosi, “Evacuation orders must be heard, changing situations, location of civilians, wind changes, and ventilation, both planned and unplanned. An order which is not heard can be fatal.”
“Radios are one of the best tools a firefighter has,” Dennis said. Dennis was a firefighter who retired five days before September 11, 2001. “Communication is a major factor in fighting fires,” Dennis said, “I can not tell you how many times over my 20-year career that I have been told to evacuate a building. When you are given an order, you follow it. That’s the way we are trained. You are inside and do not see what the chief sees. There could be something like a gas tank or propane leak or any number of dangers that have to be relayed to one another.”
Radios are so useful that each firefighter should carry one. “I worked in a Rescue Company and each man carried a radio before it was allowed,” Vigiano said, “and when I was promoted to Captain, I made sure each man carried a radio in my ladder company before it was allowed. To me, radios were the most significant tool we had in my career.”
As for lessons people should learn from September 11, 2001, “the best recipe,” former Chief Riches said to prevent tragedy, “is fire drills and planning so that everyone knows what the whistles and orders mean and how to get out.”
Molly Stark Dean is a Reporting the Nation major at New York University. She attended Suffolk University where she received a Bachelor of Science in Communications and minored in Creative Writing and Psychology. She interned at WGBH-TV, WNYT-TV, WHDH-TV, and ABC News Nightline.