FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 14, 2004
Schumer: Effort To Improve New York Police And Fire Radios Dealt Major Blow In Washington – Feds End Grants For Upgrades
US Department of Homeland Security eliminating only grants program specifically to help integrate police dept and fire dept radios – so cops and firefighters can communicate with each other at emergency scenes
Firefighters, police leaders join Schumer to push for reinstatement of program
Standing with FDNY and NYPD leaders on a Manhattan block where FDNY Ladder and Engine Companies are located next to an NYPD precinct, US Senator Charles E. Schumer today revealed that the federal government is eliminating its only grants program specifically for police and fire departments to replace or upgrade their radios so that they can communicate with each other during emergencies.
"Cutting these grants doesn't just give our police and firefighters the back of the hand, it stabs them in the back," Schumer said. "It doesn't take a lot of common sense to know that when a disaster strikes – either natural or man-made – we need the Finest and the Bravest to be able to talk to each other. It boggles the mind that we'd be taking away the best chance for the federal government to make this happen."
On Thursday, a public federal hearing in New York City examined how failed radio communications accounted for many of the police and firefighter deaths on September 11, 2001. Radio systems failed that day and after the planes hit the Twin Towers, and Police and Fire Departments were unable to coordinate their rescue plans. Because repeaters – the booster devices that amplify signals in high-rise buildings – were knocked out in the Towers, FDNY handheld radios in particular experienced severe problems.
Few firefighters in the North Tower even knew that the South Tower had collapsed, and firefighters did not know that police were broadcasting urgent warnings that the North Tower was about to collapse as well. Fire Chiefs had to ask firefighters they were able to communicate with on the building's lower floors to relay their messages to other units in the building. When the towers fell, 343 firefighters died, and an FDNY report later found that approximately 120 of those deaths were attributable in part to failed radio communications.
September 11 was not the first example of emergency radio failures in New York City – on the day the terrorists attacked, the FDNY was using an old radio system because the new system they had recently purchased was pulled out of service after just weeks of use. The system was warehoused after a Queens firefighter ran out of air at a house fire and nearly died. His radio calls for help were not heard by nearby firefighters, but were heard clearly by firefighters several blocks away. The firefighter was rescued only when an officer at the scene realized he was missing. After modifications were made to the new system, the FDNY put it back in service in February 2002 – but the system still does not allow police and firefighters to communicate with each other by radio.
The US Department of Homeland Security confirmed this week they have eliminated their $54 million Interoperable Communications Grant Program, which will not give out any grants this year. This program provided grants on a competitive basis so local jurisdictions could increase their communications interoperability – the ability for fire service, law enforcement and emergency medical services to speak to each other via radio and walkie-talkie. This year, the federal government distributed the $54 million through the program to 17 fire, police and emergency management agencies. No funds are left over for new grants. Instead, local police and fire departments will have to compete for radio funding against the entire gamut of anti-terrorism equipment, training, exercises and planning for police, fire and emergency medical personnel.
Schumer pointed out that these programs are slated for an overall cut of $200 million next year, which will result in even greater competition for scarce resources. And a different grant program that fire departments could use for new radios – the $750 million Assistance to Firefighters Program – is also set to be reduced to $500 million, a cut of one third.
The City of New York applied for radio funds when they were available, but did not secure any grant funds. The representatives of the said today that the FDNY would like another opportunity to apply for badly-needed help to replace radios, but prospects look dim because the grants program has been eliminated. Schumer today said that he will seek reinstatement of the Interoperable Communications Grant Program. Over the last two weeks, Schumer and a bipartisan group of Senators have already been strategizing about how they will increase the total amount of homeland security funds available for local governments.
"You don't have to be an emergency response expert to know you need open lines of communications between police and firefighters when disaster strikes to keep first responders safe so they can protect all of us. After all the lessons we've learned in the last three years, we should know better than to pull the rug out from under our cops and firefighters, and these funds simply have to go back."
Schumer was joined today by Robert Straub (Chairman of the Board of the Uniformed Firefighters Association), Steve Carbone (Vice President of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association), and Mubarak Abdul-Jabbar (Vice President of the Patrolman's Benevolent Association).