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Controversial radios put to use

A $23 million digital radio system — purchased in 2006 under a no-bid contract awarded under questionable circumstances — will help speed emergency response during the NATO Summit.

Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford disclosed Thursday that “some of the channels” provided by the long-stalled Motorola system would be used by top brass for “command and control” within the “NATO summit footprint” surrounding McCormick Place.

“This will allow us to operate and dispatch resources separately from the regular citywide system and the main radio system for better flexibility and control,” Langford said.

The Motorola radios were purchased in 2006 to prevent communications breakdowns like the one that contributed heavily to six deaths at an October 2003 high-rise fire at 69 W. Washington.

Last fall, a federal report blamed a shortage of radios, in part, for the death of two firefighters during a roof collapse at an abandoned laundry.

Then-Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff responded by defending his decision to delay the switch to digital radios. After exhaustive testing, Hoff said he was still not convinced about the reliability of the digital frequencies or the number of transmitters.

Since then, the city’s concerns have been resolved.

Six weeks ago, paramedics made a relatively seamless switch to the digital system. Their transition required less training because it involves the same type of radio paramedics were already using.

The old communications system used by Chicago firefighters involves a “totally different radio, different controls and different frequency band” than the digital system, requiring more extensive training, Langford said. That training for rank-and-file firefighters is scheduled to begin on June 1 after the NATO summit is over.

When fully operational, the digital radio system will allow police officers and firefighters to communicate directly with each other, instead of relying on the cumbersome process of console patching by 911 center dispatchers.

The system also has more frequencies to handle heavy traffic volumes during major emergencies. Some channels are “encrypted” for enhanced security. The new system will also be able to maintain uninterrupted communication in high-rise buildings and below ground, where radio service is notoriously difficult.

And firefighters and paramedics will use the same hand-held radios, instead of being forced to carry two different radios if they want to communicate directly.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson has accused high-ranking officials at Chicago’s 911 center of improperly routing a sole-source contract to Motorola when the contract should have been competitively bid.

To justify the no-bid contract, city officials allegedly cited an earlier $2 million investment with Motorola for similar technology.

In fact, that earlier expenditure was $350,000. And that, too, was spent “without any contract or procurement whatsoever.”

The contract irregularities created “significant risk to the city’s emergency preparedness,” Ferguson said.



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