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Myriad rescue agencies trust their link won't fail

By LEANORA MINAI and TAMARA LUSH

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 2002


After the first tower at the World Trade Center collapsed, police helicopter pilots keyed their radios and told everyone near the remaining tower to evacuate.

After the first tower at the World Trade Center collapsed, police helicopter pilots keyed their radios and told everyone near the remaining tower to evacuate.

Police officers heard the warnings and escaped. But firefighters were cut off from vital information because their radios, which frequently failed that day, were not linked to the police system.

What if terrorists struck Tampa International Airport, MacDill Air Force Base or the Sunshine Skyway bridge? Would public safety agencies be able to communicate with each other immediately and effectively over emergency radio systems?

Probably, Tampa Bay area emergency workers say.

"Naturally, you're always going to be concerned that you can all communicate," said Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder. "You try to be prepared for whatever disaster may come along. There will always be surprises."

But while Tampa Bay area police, fire and civil emergency departments say they have confidence in their radio and communications abilities, the system is largely untested over a widespread area.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the buzzword among police and fire agencies has been "interoperability." Rescuers from separate agencies should be able to talk to each other over their radios, even if they have mismatched radios.

Public safety agencies are assigned frequencies across different bands of a radio spectrum. A city's police department may be assigned one frequency while the city's fire services get another. As a result, the two departments can't talk to each other, which was among the communications problems in New York City on Sept. 11.

With the exception of Tampa, law enforcement and fire agencies in the Tampa Bay area use an 800-megahertz system, which is more expensive but allows for more users and covers a wider geographical area.

Tampa police and Hillsborough sheriff's deputies, who have two different types of radios, report that they test their radio systems each week. With special equipment bought two years ago, Tampa police can patch in to Hillsborough's system. This is also done when police are involved in a car chase that nears the county line.

In Pinellas County, that $30-million, countywide radio system links the Sheriff's Office and all police and fire departments. Eighty departments comprising 8,000 people can access the system.

That means police officers and firefighters in St. Petersburg can use their $3,200 radio to talk to police and firefighters in Tarpon Springs.

"We can go to any fire in this county and communicate," said St. Petersburg fire Lt. Mark Henrikson.

What if Pinellas or Hillsborough emergency workers respond to an emergency across the bay?

They switch their radios to a statewide, mutual aid channel. That way, rescuers are able to talk with or listen to anyone who has an 800-megahertz radio.

But Tampa's officers have never needed to use their radios to talk to officers in Pinellas County, authorities say, and that portion of the chain of communications is untested.

For example, during the fire in Ybor City in May 2000, St. Petersburg firefighters went to Tampa and filled in at city fire stations to cover other calls, but they used Tampa's radios. Conversely, Tampa police and firefighters came to St. Petersburg to help with the 1996 disturbances.

St. Petersburg firefighters, who cover areas near the Gandy and Howard Frankland bridges, carry their regular radios and other non-800-megahertz radios that have Tampa's frequencies programmed.

"We're comfortable with the system that we have," said Holder, the Tampa police chief, adding that he would rather spend money on more officers than upgrade to an 800-megahertz system. "We feel it's getting the job done."

Larry Gispert, Hillsborough County's emergency management director, said that upgrading to an 800-megahertz system is a big debate within the nationwide public safety community.

Some emergency management officials and law enforcement officers say everyone should be on the same radio system and be able to talk to everyone else.

Gispert doubts the effectiveness of that concept.

"Everybody being able to talk to everybody on a common system would add to the confusion," he said. "It would be like talking on the phone with 30 other people, all talking about something different and trying to pass along an emergency message.

"Confusion will prevail."

Gispert, as well as Pinellas emergency personnel, favor something called an incident command system. Nothing is better than a command post staffed with each agency leader relaying messages through their own radios to rescuers in the field, he said.

Such a response was implemented during the 1996 civil unrest in St. Petersburg and the Bayflite crash that killed three crew members in St. Petersburg in 2000. "Most of the time during emergency situations, they will call for radio silence," said Pam Montanari, radio systems manager for Pinellas County. "If someone is talking, someone might not be able to get through. People need radios so they can hear what the commanders are saying, but they should talk only when they need to. Listening is very valuable in the field."

Emergency workers stress that radio compatibility is only one part of what's needed in responding to a catastrophic event.

Nothing beats planning.

"I think the biggest lesson we've learned is that you have to test and you have to practice with this system, and that's probably something nobody did on a routine basis prior to 9/11," said Montanari.

But the sheer magnitude of the terror attacks in New York City -- the size of the towers, the tens of thousands of police officers and firefighters flooding the scene and the crowds of people -- would be unlikely in the Tampa Bay area.

"You can't plan for a 9/11," said Capt. Robert Price, Tampa Police Department's communication chief. "It's impossible."

-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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