One Year after 9/11: New York's Public Safety Communications

By Careless, James | Law & Order, September 2002 | Go to article overview

One Year after 9/11: New York's Public Safety Communications


Careless, James, Law & Order


It's been a year since the 9/11 attacks; a year in which police have been rebuilding their public safety radio networks in New York City. So what was lost on that fateful day, how did network operators cope, and what's the state of public safety communications in New York City today?

At 1368 feet above street level, the North Tower of the World Trade Center (1 WTC) was New York City's best antenna site- its 207 square foot rooftop was the highest flat surface in the city. As a result, 1 WTC was home to 42 non-broadcast antennas, plus the TV and radio stations that used the WTC's 351 foot main antenna mast.

On the police side, 1 WTC served the New York Police Department (NYPD). The NYPD had a Motorola 470 MHz repeater and antenna on the rooftop. The New Jersey State Police (NJSP) also had a Motorola SmartNet It 800 MHz repeater and antenna at I WTC. It covered two-thirds of the state for the NJSP. As well, 1 WTC housed Motorola 400 MHz systems used by the FBI and DEA.

Meanwhile, the 1362 foot South Tower (2 WTC) was chosen by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as its primary transmitter site. Specifically, the Port Authority had an M/A-COM 800 MHz EDACS repeater and antenna deployed on the rooftop, and another within the building to cover the WTC complex itself. In addition, the Port Authority's Communications Center was located within several floors of 2 WTC.

The NYSP shared facilities with the Port Authority in 2 WTC. The South Tower was home to the NYSP's primary Manhattan transmitter: an M/A-COM Metro-21 800 MHz EDACS repeater, plus a rooftop antenna.

Initially, New York's police radio networks weren't hurt by the 9-11 attacks. In fact, it wasn't until the two towers fell that problems occurred. For the NYPD, losing the 1 WTC repeater wasn't catastrophic, as the department has over 125 transmitter sites scattered across New York. The NYPD remained on air, without too much disruption.

The NJSP wasn't so lucky. With 1 WTC down, suddenly two-thirds of the state was hard to reach, if not out of range. Meanwhile, 2 WTC's collapse closed the NYSP's window into Manhattan, while the Port Authority's main transmitter and Communications Center were destroyed.

The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) lost a Motorola 800 MHz repeater in the 9/11 attacks. Ironically, it wasn't even housed on either 1 WTC or 2 WTC, but rather 7 WTC; the 47-story tower across the plaza from the Twin Towers. However, being on 7 WTC offered no protection for the FDNY's repeater: this building was pummeled by burning debris, which destroyed the transmitter site, ignited a building-- wide blaze, and eventually caused 7 WTC's collapse late that afternoon. As well, the FDNY's Field Communications Unit was badly damaged when 1 WTC came down.

Beyond the lost transmitter sites, of course, were the hundreds of handheld and portable units lost when the Twin Towers collapsed. They were in the hands and vehicles of the brave first responders to the scene: most buried under the tons of concrete, glass, and steel that fell to the ground.

Since 9/11, controversy has raged over the Motorola Saber XTS-3500 radios used by FDNY crews at Ground Zero. The reason: with the loss of the 7 WTC repeater, coverage within the World Trade Center was seriously compromised. In fact, people such as Captain Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association in New York, have charged that firefighters within the WTC may not have heard the order to evacuate. In response, Motorola spokesperson John McFadden told Law and Order that the problems were due to 400 radios trying to use just one or two channels at the same time. Either way, FDNY crews had serious communications problems at Ground Zero.

Finally, the city's rescue coordination operations were crippled when the Emergency Command Center (ECC)- located in the 23rd floor of 7 WTC- had to be evacuated. As this building burned, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and top police, fire and EMS officers searched for more secure quarters.

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