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American Morning

Interview of Captain Peter Gorman

Aired January 31, 2002 - 09:09   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: The big question at this hour: Are firefighters across the country using faulty communications equipment? It comes after some disturbing new questions about the events of 9/11. Did some of New York's bravest lose their lives because of a breakdown in communications?

The "New York Times" reports an internal Fire Department investigation found that radio malfunctions prevented commanders from warning firefighters inside the towers of the impending collapse. Could different emergency equipment been the difference between life and death? And do we need to spend more time and money to improve emergency communications nationwide?

Joining us from New York this morning, Captain Peter Gorman. He is the president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. Also joining us this morning is Fire Chief Gerard Dio from Worcester, Massachusetts. We're going to try to get that one up in the next minute or two.

Welcome, Captain. Appreciate your joining us this morning.


ZAHN: Let me move on to talk about the other findings of this report, because we have a graphic to support it. Here is a description of what the scene was like. "Things were hectic. We didn't have the tools that we normally have to communicate with.... don't have a fire ground radio, cellular phones were not working properly, radio was very difficult to get through."

You later learned through this report, Mr. Gorman, that the chief basically had to send someone by foot across flames, falling bodies, falling debris to get the message to a battalion chief that the towers were ready to go. What went wrong?

GORMAN: You know, specifically on Chief Peruggia's comments, he's a chief of the EMS bureau. The EMS bureau is part of the New York City Fire Department. We took over the EMS bureau six years ago, and one of the critical problems in the fire department is, they haven't even had a seamless communications system. Firefighters, when I go to an EMS call, I can't talk to the EMS personnel. The fire department has failed to address -- ZAHN: Hang on, hang on, wait. How can that -- Captain, before you go any further, how can that be, that you couldn't even communicate with an EMS worker?

GORMAN: Any street in New York City right now, you see a fire truck responding to an emergency medical call. We do not have communications to speak to the paramedics and the EMTs of the fire department. So that really underscores the communication problems that the New York City Fire Department has failed to address since 1996.

ZAHN: We have a statement from the New York Fire Department, and here is what Frank Gribbon, who is the spokesman has to say:

"Radio communications have always been a problem for firefighters, especially in high-rise buildings. The department sought to improve fire-fighter safety by obtaining new digital-capable radios."

And the statement goes on to talk about some political infighting that might have led to the introduction of these digital radios too soon. Was that a problem here?

GORMAN: That was absolutely a problem. Commissioner Gribbon's statements, I agree with him. The fire department, in March, issued 3300 -- 3800 new radios to fire personnel, at a cost $33 million. Those radios were recalled two weeks later because of serious failures in the field. Those radios -- the tragedy of 9-11 is there was $33 million of new radio equipment locked up in a warehouse because they failed. They were sent back to Motorola to be reprogrammed in an analog mode. No one has ever been held accountable for that blunder.

I would ask the Commissioner Scoppetta, if he wants to investigate 9/11, look into the people who made those decisions about those radios. The department was correct in addressing the need for better communications and more frequencies, but they failed to test those radios, they failed to evaluate them. In fact, top fire department commanders hadn't even seen those radios in March of 2001 when they were issued to the field. That is the real disgrace of 9/11.

ZAHN: Captain Gorman, FEMA director Joe Allbaugh was a guest on this show about a month ago. He has been a repeated guest in the wake of September 11th, and he says this is a problem nationwide. Give us some feedback on what you have learned from other fire chiefs across the country, and what they are dealing with when it comes to communication.

GORMAN: Well, digital technology is a new and improved technology. However, it has not been perfected for police and fire ground communications. They have been rejected -- for example the city of Boston, much smaller than New York City, five years ago did a comparative test between digital and analog radios.

Their report concluded there was a clear preference for the analog radio because they were proven communicators. It is important to note, also, that the New York City Police Department, their headquarters located only one mile from New York City -- they went out and ordered analog radios because they had top commanders in the NYPD that evaluated the radios. They bought a radio at one-fourth the price of the FDNY radios a company other than Motorola.

The fire department then went ahead and bought the same technology that was rejected by the New York City Police Department, Boston Fire Department, Chicago, and scores of others. It is a problem in the New York City Fire Department. Something went wrong with the purchasing, the ordering, and the lack of evaluation of those radios. I've been saying that since March of 2001.

ZAHN: But when you talk about some of the challenges of trying to integrate this new equipment into the system, how vulnerable are other fire departments across the country to the same problem? I know they might not have the same number of high-rise buildings we have here, but certainly being able to complete -- communicate with EMS crews is critical.

GORMAN: Absolutely it's critical. I don't think there's any fire department that is using the digital technology. There were problems with them in Delaware, out in California, in Washington, D.C., and there has been a lot of money spent on them. The analog system right now, it's an older technology, but with a good repeater system, it's the best technology we have.

It is interesting to note that at 9/11 -- one of the problems at the twin towers was the repeater system was knocked out. That's no one's fault, and no matter what kind of radios were there, I don't think it would have made a difference at 9/11, at the World Trade Center, because that repeater system was knocked out. But that repeater system, it is interesting to note, is in the analog mode.

When the department had put digital technology in the field, there were repeater systems at Penn Station, 30 Rockefeller Center, and the World Trade Center that were in the analog mode. The system -- it was never properly evaluated, and I would like Commissioner Scoppetta to hold those people accountable. Those same people are making decisions in this fire department. That's very troubling to me, and my membership.

ZAHN: And while other fire departments across the country aren't experiencing the kind of problems on this scale that your department has, certainly it is a problem across the country, and Gerard Dio, the fire chief of Worcester, Massachusetts was supposed to join us. He apparently is stuck in traffic, but he too had a problem several years ago with that massive multi-alarm fire where a lot of people lost their lives, including firefighters, and apparently he blames bad communications for some of that loss of life.

Captain Peter Gorman, thanks for your time this morning, appreciate your dropping by.