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Making radio waves
Former fire captain writes that a formal investigation must be conducted on $14M Motorola contract
Newsday - July 20, 2004
By WILLIAM MURPHY
More than three years after a $14-million radio system for the city's firefighters failed in the field, no formal investigation of how the radios were purchased has been conducted.
Now, a just-published book, co-authored by a city Fire Department captain, says the truth about the purchase of the Motorola XTS-3500 model radios never may be known without a full probe.
Capt. John Joyce, who has been in the department for almost 20 years, calls for an investigation "that will take testimony from everyone involved, and ensure that such testimony is taken under oath."
In May 2001, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi said he had found widespread problems with the city's purchasing methods for the XTS-3500 model radios and with the radios' performance. The radios were in use for only one week in March 2001 before they were pulled from service due to communication failures.
Hevesi forwarded his findings to the city's Department of Investigation in the summer of 2001, but the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, derailed much interest in the radios.
In a separate action concerning but not limited to the radios, a lawsuit filed in May 2001 by a Fire Department ambulance worker has turned up a document in which a city attorney says DOI never opened a formal investigation, despite the referral from Hevesi.
"DOI did conduct a preliminary investigation into the radio purchase, but did not commence any formal investigation," city attorney Eric Eichenholtz said in a letter dated May 21 that he submitted to a federal magistrate.
"Accordingly, DOI did not prepare any sort of report or closing memorandum in regards to the radio purchase," the attorney said in a legal memo arguing against the release of city records to the city paramedic who brought the lawsuit.
Paramedic Richard McAllan has sued the Fire Department, claiming it improperly transferred him and retaliated against him for calling in April 2001 for then-Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen's resignation because of the radios and other matters.
The city's letter also asked the federal magistrate not to grant McAllan access he has sought for other documents to bolster his case.
The Uniformed Fire Officers Association asked Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in July 2002 to submit the matter to a grand jury. Morgenthau's office declined comment last week.
The XTS-3500s were put back in service in February 2002, on the order of the new fire commissioner, Nicholas Scoppetta. The department had reprogrammed the radios and made other alterations, and said they were in working order.
Joyce's book, "Radio Silence FDNY," lays out the many problems with the purchase of the Motorola XTS-3500 radios and with their operational problems at fires and other emergencies before the radios were pulled from service.
Fire Department spokesman Frank Gribbon said Friday he had not seen the book and had no comment on it.
In the book, Joyce questions how many of the 343 firefighters who died on Sept. 11, 2001, might have escaped the World Trade Center if they had new working radios - instead of the older Saber radios that were reissued after the XTS-3500s were pulled from service in March 2001.
The book puts the blame for deaths on Sept. 11 squarely on the shoulders of the terrorists, but adds: "Officials should not be allowed to wrap themselves in the sanctity of the deaths of New York's Bravest to escape answering for their conduct."
During the week in March 2001 that the XTS-3500s were in service, there were several complaints about mechanical problems and a radio plea for help from one firefighter who had run out of air in a smoky basement fire in Queens. That firefighter could not be heard by his immediate colleagues; luckily, he was heard by arriving units that then were several blocks away, who alerted those on the scene in time to rescue their colleague.
The Joyce book, co-written with Bill Bowen, a private citizen who lives in California, depicts a cozy relationship between Motorola and the Fire Department, but reserves its harshest criticism and most pointed questions for top officials of the city and the Fire Department.
Among the many unresolved questions raised by the book and/or the Hevesi audit:
How was a $2.9 million solicitation for replacement of about 750 existing Saber-brand Motorola radios turned into a contract for more than 3,000 radios, the XTS-3500 model, at a cost of more than $14 million?
Why, if the original request was for replacement radios, did Fire Commissioner Von Essen later admit to the City Council that the XTS radios were new equipment, which would have required the department to consult with fire unions before purchasing them?
If the department meant to buy new radios all along, where is the documentation that Motorola and the department tested them properly?
Why did the city not force Motorola to disclose the results of earlier tests it claimed it had conducted on the XTS models with emergency responders in other jurisdictions?
At the time, Motorola refused, citing the privacy of corporate "proprietary information." It also refused to divulge the names of other jurisdictions that had bought the radios, although some had been identified earlier in corporate press releases.
Why was Motorola mentioned as the only company the Fire Department dealt with, although city contracting officials said they had contracts with 175 potential suppliers? The city has never identified those suppliers.
Joyce and Bowen dedicated the book to the firefighters who died at the World Trade Center.
"If they could be heard, the voices of the fallen firefighters call for this investigation from their communal grave where once the Twin Towers stood," they write.
(For more information, visit: RadioSilenceFDNY.com)
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