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Navy firefighters: Failure of NDW radio system impacted saving lives following Navy Yard shooting rampage.

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Previous coverage of Navy Yard shootings here, & here

Hank Silverberg, WTOP Radio:

Faulty radios may have slowed the treatment of victims at the  Navy Yard shooting.

The Navy’s fire department, civilians who protect naval facilities across  the Washington region, were the first to arrive at the Navy Yard to treat the  wounded Monday morning after Aaron Alexis opened fire inside Building 197.

But Greg Russell, president of Local F121 of the International Association  of Firefighters, says firefighters could not communicate with each other because  their digital radios did not work.

He says they actually had to send runners between the command center inside  a building and the area where their equipment was staged.

“I believe that the radio problems is a contributing factor to the chaos  and delay of prompt medical care to the victims,” says Russell.

He says he can’t say for sure if the faulty radios led to the loss of a  life. But it was not the first time the radios have malfunctioned.

“We have been raising this issue for the greater portion of five years. This  is not new to the Naval District of Washington,” he says. 

The Navy firefighters eventually borrowed radios from the D.C. fire  department to get the job done.

The Navy fire department has 250 firefighters in the Washington District  spread among 13 fire houses. They protect all naval facilities including the Navy  Yard, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, the Naval Academy in Annapolis and the  Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.

Russell says the radios’ Mayday system, which should alert firefighters when  one of their own is in trouble, also doesn’t work. And he says the radios eat up  batteries at an alarming rate. 

The radios are actually borrowed from the Army, which uses them at several  facilities including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. 

In response to an inquiry from WTOP about the faulty radios, the Navy issued  the following written statement:

“At this time the Naval District Washington focus remains on healing as a  Navy family and transitioning to normal operations at the Washington Navy Yard.  The Secretary of the Navy has ordered a review of physical security and we will  support it fully. Our biggest concern is our Navy Family.”

On Thursday, the union representing civilian police officers at the Navy Yard complained about being under-staffed because of budget cuts, which  slowed their agency’s response to the shootings.

Ken Molestina,

We’ve got more details after explosive accusations suggest lives could have been spared at the Navy Yard shooting if the first rescuers inside were able to communicate.

We are specifically referring to the U.S. Naval District of Washington Fire and EMS Department and reports that their emergency radios failed them during the Navy Yard shooting incident.

“I would say there is a great likelihood that more lives could have been saved ,” said Gregory Russell with the National Capital Federal Firefighters. He is the president of the National Capital Federal Firefighters Union. He is also a fire inspector with the U.S. Naval District of Washington Fire, and EMS Department. That’s the same department responsible for fire and EMS services at the Navy Yard.

“They were there almost instantly after the call was put out.”

And just as fast he says, the troubles in communication among Navy firefighters began. He says the radio’s provided to them by the navy failed.

“Immediately upon their arrival they were experiencing radio problems. they were not receiveing and not able to transmit messages to other emergency responders”

He tells us a batallion chief who was the first inside building 197 was trying to report details from inside the shooting scene and set up triage, but couldn’t.

“This required the use of a runner. We had to assign a fire captain as a chiefs aide…he would have to go all the way outside of the building to transmit.”

The president of this union says he is so fed up with the problem that he is drafting a letter calling for the resignation of all those who had anything to do with the purchase and deployment of these radios.

We asked the union president if there were documents reporting the radio failures. He was able to provide reports from 2010,  2012,  and one report from january 2013.

“These poorly functioning radios contributed to the chaos,” he said.

WUSA9  reached out to the Regional Fire Chief C.P. Miedzinski by phone. He refused to comment on the matter saying they would e-mail statement to us, but we never received that.

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Comments - Add Yours

  • 19262007

    What?! More incompetence from within the confines of the District?? And this time it’s not the District Government? Say it ain’t so!

  • Mick Mayers

    Actually, this is a pretty big problem not just in DC, but throughout the country (or anywhere, really). I’m certainly not a radio expert, but since switching to digital I have personally experienced more problems, as well as hearing the same from many of my friends and colleagues. What is distressing is that these issues are just explained away as some kind of unusual occurrence. I would bet that in their case, they couldn’t hit a tower because of all of the other comms going on, and kept getting that frustrating “bonk”.

    We have tried to resolve this using mobile repeaters, but even these are problematic. In EVERY disaster studied in the past twenty years, communications continues to come up as a problem. Between interoperability, poor design and function, crappy reception, etc. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions, but there seems to be a few common denominators in the problems.

    This should be a very high priority, but while we can send a ship to Mars and can talk to it, we can’t even transmit out of some buildings right here on Planet Earth, and I say that’s bull s***. We need better communication solutions from the manufacturers and they don’t seem to really care about the problem.

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  • NDW Fireman

    Don’t take the fire chiefs NON actions to heart, we don’t hear from him either. Personally I haven’t even seen the man since he became fire chief. He will even park his vehicle at the Navy Yards firehouse and just walk straight to his meeting without coming inside to talk to the fellas.

  • Anonymous

    Say it ain’t so, a M/A-Com / Tyco / Harris radio system not working!

  • fireguy

    Incompetent like the rest of what goes in that city. I don’t see how the rank and file members stand it. The leadership from the federal level down to the local level is just deplorable.

  • Blue

    GSA low bid equipment at it’s finest I’m sure.

  • Anonymous

    Time to go back to two soup cans and a string. Never fails within ear shot of the person your talking to.

  • 0 cool

    Nextel never failed on me, why not go back to that system. I don’t think anyone is using it anymore. Should be plenty of space to use it. Or get the wallkie talkies sold in Kmart, probably better then what we have now.

  • Engine2Boss

    Everyone is always quick to bash the digital radio. While digital does have some problems with distortion due to excessive back dround noise being soaked up by the vocoder that most digital radio employ, there are techinques that can be practiced to limit this. Notice i did not say eliminate. Motorola in cooperation with several leading fire service groups put a video together that helps address this. Its on youtube. Just search for it. On the other hand, sometimes this has nothing to do with digital but everthing to do with coverage by the towers…not enough towers equals not enough coverage….not enough coverage equals poor in building reliabilty…no matter if the radio system is digital or analog or whatever. As for being “honked out”…this has to do with the towers not having enough voice frequencies to handle the load of the radio traffic at that particular moment. Its the same when you have no bars on your cell phone. This equals no coverage…or when you get that message that “the system is busy, try your call later”… this equals not enough capacity.

  • longtimeFF

    Pre-planning is in order, perhaps even at the company level. If your team enters a facility and there is no comm due to inability to hit the tower (duplex) switch to simplex or direct communications. Having local comm is better than zero comm. Yes, someone outside might have to monitor two radios in order to request additional resources, provide status, etc. Post 9-11, frequencies were created in every band to allow for comm in every jurisdiction in the nation. Obviously, those frequencies must be loaded into the radios prior to the event. Ask for them, then train with them. See the NIFOG for all the details: Many FFs do not realize these “Direct” frequencies are in even in their radios. Check out yours.

    • Dave Erwin

      AMEN BROTHER, we have a Motorola trunk system in our state that the end users complain about in building coverage and I preach constantly about using the direct (simplex) channels for on scene, why would you want to talk to a tower 10 or 20 miles away versus a radio 50 ft away. Us firefighters sometime create our own safety issues by being hard headed.

  • Engine2boss


    What happened to my comment. It was awaiting moderation and now its gone.

    • Engine2boss

      Nevermind. Now its back….musta have had someting to do with venus being to close…lol

      • dave statter

        I only just approved it. Been away from the computer.

        • Engine2boss

          Ok thanks.

    • mark

      The NSA was holding it.

      So, does anything actually work in DC? Or does the political vortex screw everything up?

      I remember the good ole days of analog cell phones. I could be in the middle of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan snowmobiling, 50 miles from nowhere and have service. A little static now and then, but I could still hold a conversation.

      Enter the digital age. Not enough capacity; digital garbling unable to understand someone; no service in the UP anymore.

      Progress is great.

  • RadioJoe

    I believe this is the radio system – P25 380 Mhz – scroll to the bottom to see the Navy Yard talkgroups. Anyone know if they have any “real” direct or simplex channels to use?

    The fire service needs to pay alot more attention to radios. Maybe a little less attention to leather helmets.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t be so quick to blame the radios. I travel to WNY alot and find that cell phones don’t work particullarly in Bldg 197 and just outside. When I took a cell phone to WNY I usually had to wait till I got close to M street before I got a signal. Stopped taking my cell phone to the yard because (a) it didn’t work and (b) cell phones with a camera are not allowed (although I guess shotguns are).

    • RadioJoe

      Anonymous – I think that your are trying to say that WNY is a radio “deadspot”. Cellphones use different towers and frequencies than public safety radios. Public safety radio systems should be engineered to work in many places where cellphones dont work.

  • John Marcel

    If I understand, the system is a 380/400Mhz Motorola P25 trunked system used in many federal facilities now. In some places they work fine. In some places conventional radios don’t even work.

    I truly believe that if blame must be assigned, its assigned to everyone from the probie on the engine to the manufacturer (whoever that may be is irrelevant).

    Why didn’t the Firefighters/Union insist daily the system be built properly?
    Why didn’t the fire department/administration insist that a “complete” engineering study be done?
    Why didn’t the radio vendor truly study the “Entire” area involved, develop the study and insist they buy what was recommended?
    Back to the Fire Dept/Firefighters. Was “proper” (not adequate, not cursory) communications training occur with knowledge of areas that were problematic? They can disassemble and reassemble an SCBA in the dark. Can they operate their radios the same way? Seems the one tool used daily is the least they’re concerned with. Until something happens.