Philly police riding 2 to a car following radio glitches
By Barbara Boyer
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — City police officers will be riding two in a car after radio communications cut out Tuesday night for 45 minutes, and officials yesterday told Motorola it must ensure the system is working properly - and soon.
"The system that we have, and what happened, is totally unacceptable both to the mayor and to the city," said Everett Gillison, deputy mayor of public safety. "We have officers that depend on the radio system 24-7 and it can't go down in order to be able to ensure their safety."
Officials said they would not rule out dumping the $62 million system if they were not satisfied with the response from the company, which said a faulty controller board had caused the mishap and had been replaced.
Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who came across a street fight Tuesday night in North Philadelphia and called for backup, got a quick study in the problems that have plagued the system since it was installed in 2002.
"Two minutes of down time is not acceptable to me. It's totally unacceptable, and Motorola's got to fix it. Period," Ramsey said. "We need 100 percent reliability."
After Ramsey called for assistance and the primary system failed, three backup radio systems failed as well, Gillison said. That left the city using a fourth option - a compromised and less-efficient radio communications and text-messaging system - until the main system was restored about 10:30 p.m.
Motorola said in a statement: "We have contacted city officials and Commissioner Ramsey to discuss this matter and the solution that is now in place to ensure that the system continues to function without interruption."
Previously, Motorola had advised the city to spend $30 million to upgrade the system. Gillison said yesterday that was under consideration, provided Motorola could guarantee uninterrupted service.
The city was never completely without service, Gillison said. Police, fire and medics were still dispatched, and no one was injured as a result of the failure.
Low-priority calls, such as barking dogs or parking violations, were put off, with the focus remaining on priority calls and violent crime.
The commissioner ordered officers to ride two to a car for safety until he orders otherwise.
Capt. Mike Oswald, in charge of radio dispatch Tuesday night, said there were some tense moments in the radio room at Police Headquarters in Center City.
"There's always a sense of urgency because we're dealing with life-and-death issues," Oswald said, adding that dispatchers are trained weekly to handle failures.
"It was a perfect storm," Oswald said of Tuesday night. "Everything bad that could happen did happen."
Gillison said the failure may have been the extension of problems created Monday night when the Domino Lane communications site in Upper Roxborough was struck by lightning. Motorola had been working on the system, and checking the backup, Tuesday morning.
And when Ramsey needed backup, a citywide call went out for "Assist Officer, Car One" - the commissioner - at 9:36 p.m., prompting a large, quick response to the fight, which officers speedily contained. Within a minute, the system failed, possibly because it was overloaded, officials said.
Despite the failure, police still had communication on three major bands with about 22 bands knocked out. The 911 system continued to work and dispatchers still communicated with officers.
Councilman Frank Rizzo, who sits on the committees for public safety and for technology and information services, said his late father - a former Philadelphia mayor and police commissioner - would be "rolling over" if he knew what was happening. Rizzo said he would ask for hearings when Council's fall term begins in September.
"People's lives are at stake," Rizzo said.
In a written statement, he added: "In a terrorist attack or natural disaster, the resulting tragedy could assume Biblical proportions. We've got a problem. We need to fix it now."
Copyright 2008 The Philadelphia Inquirer