I-Team: What happens when firefighters enter a radio 'dead zone'?

CINCINNATI -- When firefighters arrived at an East Westwood apartment complex July 7, a storm had knocked out the power. Some of the senior citizens living there were concerned and confused.

In the darkness of a first-floor apartment, a red light appeared on a firefighter's radio. A firefighter said the light indicated the radio was out of range, meaning it couldn't be used to communicate directly with dispatchers.

The radio went in and out of range inside the apartment.

"Because there are so many other variables, we need to probably look at that individual radio to see if there was something causing that, or was it really a signal strength problem," Fire Chief Roy Winston said.

Matt Alter, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 48, wasn't surprised by the issue. He said concerns about dead zones are long-documented.

"We can't talk about them enough," Alter said. "It's a major concern -- it's our lifeline."

Despite wrestling with the problem for years -- including a $15 million upgrade that went live last August -- dead zones still exist inside many buildings, Alter said. They're particularly found in buildings with more steel and concrete; the problem is worse deeper into those buildings and below ground level.

On Friday, in an apparent response to questions from the I-Team, Winston sent a memo to City Manager Harry Black. Winston emphasized that "there are virtually no radio dead spots in the City of Cincinnati if you are outside." He also indicated "the City radio system maintains 95 percent in-building coverage."

Winston said firefighters in a dead zone can still talk with each other inside a building, as well as to a firefighter outside. The user on the outside could then relay information to dispatchers and others on the radio system.

"Through training, looking at backups that were put in place to try to help our members, I think the system has proven itself fairly reliable," he said.

The fire department also keeps track of dead spots reported by firefighters and shares that information with crews when they are dispatched to those buildings, Winston said.

"The ability to communicate is what keeps us alive," he said.

A team from the city's information technology department investigates and attempts to fix radio problems as soon as they're identified, city spokesman Rocky Merz said. The city pays for antennae on public buildings. Owners of privately-owned properties buy their own.

Motorola, the company that supplies the Cincinnati Fire Department's radios, said in a statement Monday it "works closely with Cincinnati Fire Department to provide a mission-critical radio system that adheres to in-building public safety radio coverage requirements" and was ready to address any coverage concerns.

According to the city, University of Cincinnati Medical Center, PNC Bank Tower and Great American Ball Park are among many buildings that have added antennae to eliminate dead zones. The Riverfront Transit Center near Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park has dead spots, but a new antenna will be installed there, too.

The Cincinnati Fire Prevention Code requires the installation of specialized communications systems that ensure good coverage for radios, but the code only applies to buildings 75 feet or taller. In other places, firefighters must rely on their own reports, follow through, training and instincts when they find themselves in a dead zone during an emergency situation.

Motorola, the vendor for the city's emergency radio system, said it was ready to help address any coverage concerns:

"Motorola Solutions works closely with Cincinnati Fire Department to provide a mission-critical radio system that adheres to in-building public safety radio coverage requirements. Additionally, the city's fire prevention code requires that private building owners provide a two-way fire department communication system in operable condition at all times for fire department use in buildings which have floors located more than 75 feet above the lowest level of fire department vehicle access."

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