FDNY Capt. Anthony Catalanotto | Better radio systems protect firefighters

Catalanotto is assigned to the New York Fire Department's Bureau of Operations

'We were in the smoke all day long. You couldn't even tell what time of day it was.' Capt. Anthony Catalanotto, FDNY

Courtesy of FDNY

New York firefighters better protect their city because the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, ignited a sense of urgency to strengthen their communications and better coordinate among firefighters, police and emergency management.

The attacks took a heavy toll on the Fire Department of New York City'343 firefighters died in the collapse of the 110-floor Twin Towers.

Since then, the FDNY has modernized its communications, put radios in the hands of every working firefighter and added radio frequencies so city response agencies can talk with each other at the site of an emergency, said Anthony Catalanotto, captain in New York Fire Department's Bureau of Operations.

On the morning of 9-11, Catalanotto, then a lieutenant assigned to a firehouse in the Bronx, was home off duty. After firefighters responded to the call to their firehouse, 'we commandeered a city bus'the people had no idea what was going on. We took the bus with a lot of firemen and officers from the northern part of the Bronx, and we responded down to lower Manhattan,' he said.

By that time, both of the World Trade Center buildings had collapsed, and there was a lot of chaos.

'We were in the smoke all day long. You couldn't even tell what time of day it was. We didn't leave that side of the site until midnight,' he said.

Many of the firefighters returned to the firehouse after midnight only to be back on duty at 9 a.m. for their usual 24 hours on and 24 off.

'We still had to maintain our own company. We couldn't skip a beat,' he said.

Firefighters rely on their handi-talkies, as they call their radios, for help when they are trapped in a burning building, lost in dense smoke, or just to communicate with commanders.

In 2001, firefighters going out on a truck had three or four radios but often had six people working, leaving two or three without any capability to speak over the radio.

Since 2003, every firefighter has a radio. And the signal is stronger than the previous handi-talkies, said Catalanotto, who in November 2001 was promoted to captain and given responsibility for training firefighters on new technology.

Although the newer radios were digital, the fire department reverted to analog. For example, in a fire in a typical house, 45 to 60 firemen can arrive in front of the building within 20 minutes.

'With digital, when we had numerous transmissions at the same time, they just canceled each other out,' he said.

9/11 also demonstrated the need to be able to communicate with firefighters who respond to emergencies in high-rise buildings, a weak link in the department's capabilities at that time. FDNY's research and development unit developed a command post radio, called outpost radio. It's a 45-watt mobile radio that was hooked up initially to a jet-ski battery to power it up and placed in a Pelican case, which is a waterproof case for electronics. There are about 75 outpost radios now that firefighters use in high-rise buildings to pick up communications.

The Justice Department also helped procure ACU 1000s, computer-assisted machines installed in command vehicles that accept disparate radio signals, such as VHF, UHF, 800-MHz and cell phone signals. It lets a mix of a fire and police departments and Office of Emergency Management talk with units at the scene.

'You can create a network, where you can have different frequencies of radios compatible to talk with each other. This gives us a tremendous ability to talk on eight different frequencies simultaneously,' he said.

New York City used it for the Republican National Convention in 2004. With a push of the 'connect all' button on the radio, a commander could relay an emergency message, for example to evacuate.

'It would help to evacuate because all would get the message sooner and it also goes out at a larger wattage, and you have better ability to contact more members quicker,' he said.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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