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Controversial Radio System Operates in Chicago

A $23 million digital radio system - purchased in 2006 under a no-bid contract awarded under questionable circumstances - will help speed emergency response during the NATO Summit.

Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford disclosed Thursday that "some of the channels" provided by the long-stalled Motorola system would be used by top brass for "command and control" within the "NATO summit footprint" surrounding McCormick Place.

"This will allow us to operate and dispatch resources separately from the regular citywide system and the main radio system for better flexibility and control," Langford said.

The Motorola radios were purchased in 2006 to prevent communications breakdowns like the one that contributed heavily to six deaths at an October 2003 high-rise fire at 69 W. Washington.

Last fall, a federal report blamed a shortage of radios, in part, for the death of two firefighters during a roof collapse at an abandoned laundry.

Then-Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff responded by defending his decision to delay the switch to digital radios. After exhaustive testing, Hoff said he was still not convinced about the reliability of the digital frequencies or the number of transmitters.

Since then, the city's concerns have been resolved.

Six weeks ago, paramedics made a relatively seamless switch to the digital system. Their transition required less training because it involves the same type of radio paramedics already were using.

The old communications system used by Chicago firefighters involves a "totally different radio, different controls and different frequency band" than the digital system, requiring more extensive training, Langford said. That training for rank-and-file firefighters is scheduled to begin June 1 after the NATO summit is over.

When fully operational, the digital radio system will allow police officers and firefighters to communicate directly with each other, instead of relying on the cumbersome process of console patching by 911 center dispatchers.



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