Long Before Navy Shooting, Military First Responders Complained of Bum Radios

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Communications failures hampered emergency response.

Radio failures reported by Navy emergency personnel responding to the Sept. 16 shootings at the Washington Navy Yard underscored problems Navy firefighters have documented since 2009, union officials said.

The transmission range was so poor, firefighters working in an incident command post within a building at the Navy Yard had to send a runner with a radio to a door in order to communicate, said Greg Russell, president of the local that represents firefighters in the Naval District of Washington.

Russell also told Nextgov that batteries in the radios used by firefighters, who also serve as emergency medical technicians, lost their charge within two to three hours, despite requirements that they be able to sustain a charge for eight hours.

The Naval District of Washington started using the land mobile radio system manufactured by Harris Corp. to cover installations in the District, Maryland and Virginia in 2009. 

In a statement to Nextgov, the company said it was supporting a Defense Department review of the shooting and emergency response and that it would be inappropriate to speculate about the reported problems. “The regional radio system that includes and covers the Washington Navy Yard was purchased in 2005 and operated by Naval District Washington. It includes systems from M/A-COM, a business later acquired by Harris,” the company noted.

Russell said firefighters since 2009 have documented problems with the radios that “fill a three inch file,” with those complaints largely ignored by district managers.

Among the issues reported, firefighters have not been able to communicate with each other from either side of a house and the emergency Mayday button on the radio does not correctly identify to dispatchers fallen firefighters who are seeking assistance.

The land mobile radio system the Navy uses is a “trunked” system, with different channels assigned to various installations in the Washington area.

Russell, based at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, was staged at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington during the Navy Yard shootings, along with engines from that base, the Naval Research Laboratory and Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center in Maryland. Due to the channel arrangement, crews from these engines could not communicate, “even though we were sitting next to each other,” Russell said, adding that at least one channel on his radio was needed to support area-wide communications.

The union said firefighters and police officers at NDW cannot use their radios to talk to each other and the NDW radios cannot communicate with other emergency response agency personnel such as those from other fire departments that may be at the scene of the same emergency.

Jim Johnson, vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters 16th district, which represents federal firefighters, noted the longstanding nature of the failures in a statement: “Not just during the incident at the Navy Yard, but in many other emergency response situations, the NDW’s radios have been grossly inadequate.” To compensate for radio failures “our members have been forced many times to use individuals as runners or to use radios from other departments to relay information and ask questions. The safety risk this imposes on our members and the people they serve is unacceptable,” Johnson said.

In a Sept. 23 letter to Lawrence Strickling, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and Mignon Clyburn, acting FCC chairwoman, Reps. Henry Waxman and Anna Eshoo, both California Democrats, requested an investigation of the radio failures. Waxman is the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Eshoo is ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.  

“Press reports of the Navy Yard tragedy indicate some of the radio problems experienced by police and firefighters at the scene -- including inadequate indoor coverage, radio interference caused by fire alarms and the inability to communicate with non-Navy first responders -- were known long before the shooting, and little was done to solve these issues,” they wrote.

A Navy official said archived recordings from Sept. 16 showed the radios used by Navy first responders “worked as designed.”

A “few areas” inside building 197 at the Navy Yard, headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command, where Aaron Alexis killed 12 people and wounded three others, were built to block radio signals, the official said. Those areas are known as SCIFs, for sensitive compartmented information facilities, and are used to securely handle classified information designed to prevent, among other things, radio reception and transmission.

Russell said the archived recordings only show completed, not attempted, radio calls and added that the incident command post was set up in an open conference room, not a SCIF.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, known as the 9/11 Commission, called for a nationwide intraoperative first responder network more than a decade ago.  

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