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Better Communication Could Have Saved Lives on Sept. 11, says Newspaper - 2002-07-08


An exhaustive study undertaken by The New York Times finds that better communications systems may have saved the lives of many of the firefighters who died on September 11 rescuing people in the World Trade Center towers.

The Times devoted more than six months and a team of reporters and investigators to the study. The newspaper concludes that at least 121 of the 343 firefighters who died were within "striking distance" of safety.

According to the report, the rescue effort at the World Trade Center was hampered by flawed communications systems and by a historic lack of coordination between the fire and police departments.

Police pilots flying helicopters above the inferno warned that one of the towers was about to collapse, but their warnings were never transmitted to firefighters inside the building. Radios, which were inaudible or not working at all, prevented many firefighters from receiving evacuation orders from their own department supervisors.

Radio communications in high rise buildings have hindered the department's efforts in the past. In 1993, firefighters experienced a similar radio system failure when the World Trade Center was bombed.

David Rosenweig is the president of the fire alarm dispatchers union. He confirms that outdated technology has been an ongoing problem for the fire department. "Up-to-date technology is essential for providing the services to the citizens of New York," he said. "In the fire department, we have been waiting for more than 10 years to get an upgrade in our computer dispatcher assist system."

The New York city fire department did try to upgrade its communication technology with handheld digital radios about a year ago. But after complaints from firefighters, the department returned to the old system.

News that better equipment could have saved lives has comes as sobering news to the families of some of those lost on September 11. Sally Regenhard, who lost her firefighter son Christian, is heading a campaign to improve skyscraper safety. "The response of our emergency systems was so flawed, so disconnected, so substandard, I am shocked," she said. "I was devastated when I read it."

Since the tragedy, police and fire department officials have been working on improving relations and communications between the two departments. New York is also creating a new radio channel that will be shared by both police and firefighters. Department heads have been meeting periodically with other emergency management personnel to limit the risk to rescuers in future disasters.