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Fire commissioner defends radio delay amid feds’ report

Firefighters search for trapped responders after part rear wall collapsed Dec. 22 2010 fire. Two firefighters died fire. | Brian

Firefighters search for trapped responders after a part of a rear wall collapsed in a Dec. 22, 2010 fire. Two firefighters died in the fire. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

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Updated: November 10, 2011 5:44PM

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 analogue-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.

“This was not a case of a firefighter cut off, lost or unable to communicate. Each member at that fire was in close proximity to another member who had a radio. People who were trapped couldn’t get to their radios. But people were next to them and knew where they were. No one freelances without a radio,” he said.

The federal report also blamed poor communications and the city’s failure to mark vacant and hazardous buildings so firefighters arriving on the scene know what they’re getting into.

In 2007, city inspectors had ordered roof repairs at the abandoned laundry, only to have the owner skip the repairs and board up the building in a failed attempt to keep homeless people out. Firefighters were never notified about the dangerous roof.

Hoff said he agrees with those recommendations and has made changes to remedy the problem.

Twice a year, fire companies now scour the city to identify potentially hazardous buildings, then forward the information to the 911 center for entry on the computer-aided dispatch system that relays information to firehouses and vehicle computers.

Firefighters inside a burning building are under orders to closely communicate with incident commanders. What Hoff calls “personal accountability” tags now hang in the cab of each fire truck to keep track of every firefighter at an emergency scene.

And Mayor Rahm Emanuel is preparing to introduce an ordinance that would affix “large fluorescent signs” to dangerous buildings so, as Hoff put it, “even though everything looks okay from the outside, we know it’s unsafe on the inside.”

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