HOUSTON -- Firefighters work in the most dangerous of places. Protecting our property and our lives, they walk into burning, smoke-filled buildings.
Here if they get separated or into trouble, their only lifeline to help and safety may be their radio.
That’s why the KHOU 11 New I-Team listened when some Houston firefighters started complaining about a new radio system that the city just put into place.
It’s a system that some say could lead to tragedy.
“People I represent deserve more than a radio that might work,” said Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 341 President Jeff Caynon. “The radio is at least if not more important than almost everything you have on.”
You see like many other cities, for years the Houston Fire Department relied on an analog UHF radio network. It allowed on-the-scene firefighters to communicate with each other and with off-site officers.
But the explosive growth of cell phones and other technologies has made such older systems vulnerable to radio interference and cross-talk.
As a result, the federal government mandated that cities switch their first-responder radio systems to newer digital radios that have more channels to talk on and are supposed to have less interference problems.
But Jeff Canyon says so far, Houston’s new radios have him worried.
In fact, on May 6th, Caynon wrote a letter to Houston’s Fire Chief saying the department’s new $140 million digital system was putting firefighters at risk.
KHOU: “So, there are times when firefighters that (sic) are in a burning building or a burning house and their radio goes dead?”
KHOU: “And Houston firefighters have reported this to you since they’ve been using digital radios?”
Caynon: “They have.”
The result? First responders have to improvise on the scene.
Example: A Father’s Day fire inside a restaurant at the Galleria. When Houston firefighters arrived, they found the digital channels on their new radios didn’t work because of bad reception.
So they switched to a walkie-talkie type system that while it let them talk to each other, cut out any communication with the ‘outside’, i.e. Houston Fire Dept. dispatch or headquarters.
“If you’re not able to communicate with the outside, you’re operating blindly,” said International Association of Fire Fighters Director of Occupational Health and Safety Jim Brinkley.
Brinkley also told us: “I think the city of Houston, particularly the management side, needs to sit down with the union and honestly look at what’s wrong with this radio system and come up with some real solutions and they need to do it now before it is a contributing factor to a line of duty death.”
Consider the tragic May fire and building collapse that took the lives of four Houston firefighters.
While no one we spoke with said that the new radios were a “contributing factor”, HFD sources told us the radio system made a complicated situation worse.
One firefighter with intimate knowledge of the blaze said communication was so problematic that ‘first-responders’ started using hand signals to ‘talk.’
Brinkley sums it up: “We have to do something about this radio system.”
But the city doesn’t seem to have a lot of options.
The KHOU 11 News I-Team obtained internal HFD documents that reveal some troubling facts.
For example, on Friday April 26th, the department sent out a bulletin announcing that although HFD was supposed to permanently switch to the new digital system on April 29th, it was being postponed because of ongoing technical issues. In short: Firefighters would continue using the UHF radios for the time being.
But then two hours later came a complete reversal.
Now a new e-mail announced that effective immediately the department would switch to the new radios after all.
The reason: The old UHF system had collapsed.
Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison sat down with the I-Team.
KHOU: “You can see how this might be concerning to people when they’re told, ‘ok’, we’re not ready,’ and then a few hour later, ‘let’s do it, we have no choice.’”
Garrison: “The last statement you said is the most perfect example. We have no choice. The system crashed.”
KHOU: “How comfortable are you with the system?”
Garrison: “I have some issues with the system because of the coverage.”
Reception issues in areas like the Texas Medical Center in some hospitals or in the tunnels downtown, and of course, the Galleria.
KHOU: “That’s a pretty big deal that there’s not great coverage in the Galleria?”
Garrison: “I agree with everything you’re saying. It’s an absolute big deal. We need to get better at what we’re doing.”
The I-Team also met with the city’s IT deputy director who told us while some believe the new system isn’t perfect, he believes it’s astronomically better than the old analog system.
“We spent thousands of hours testing the system,” said Houston IT Services Deputy Director Tom Sorley. “We built a system that has more than ten times the coverage; it probably has 50 times the capacity.”
The city also says it is working to get reception into the dead areas around town.
Plans were already in the works to take care of the issues in the tunnels and in the hospitals.
After the Galleria fire, the chief met with the Mayor to discuss the issues there.
“I shared my concerns about the Galleria area and we need to get some fixes in the Galleria area. She was right on board and she supported it so we are going to move forward,” said Chief Garrison.
The estimated cost of that could be about $3 million.
The chief also says he has met with some members of the union regarding the radios.
“I think at the end of the day I share the same concerns as some of our firefighters have,” said the Chief. “I was a firefighter.”