N.Y. transit authority's million-dollar radio network too bogged down to use

Dropping the call:  Dead spots throughout the tunnel system put transit police at risk

By Mary Rose Roberts 
Mobile Radio Technology 

NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Transit Authority, or MTA, of New York doesn't want to talk about its $140 million radio communications system that is bogged down by so much interference that New York City transit police refuse to use it.

"We're not going to comment until the police tell us it's fixed," an MTA spokesperson said.

Who can blame them?

Hauppauge, N.Y.-based E.A. Technologies, a company that develops communications networks for public transit systems, was awarded the contract in 2000. It called for the installation of a fiber-optic communications network for the New York subway system that would provide reliable radio communications between street level officers and those assigned to the underground subway. It also was to integrate the city's fire department communications. (E.A. Technologies also declined to comment for this story.)

The system's citywide installation was completed in late October 2006 - two years behind schedule. It combined existing police antennas, amplifiers and antenna cables to transmit radio signals from street level throughout the underground rail.

It works by bouncing a signal from antenna to antenna and using myriad amplifiers to strengthen the signal as it moves throughout the subway system. For example, a signal from an officer's radio is transmitted first to an existing police antenna and then to a street antenna, which sends the signal to a main amplifier located in the subway system. There, an antenna cable radiates the signal throughout the subway, where support amplifiers re-energize weakened signals as needed.

But the system hasn't been turned on yet because the same signal also can enter the tunnel system through pedestrian staircases, which causes widespread interference, according to an MTA report. In addition, the MTA found antenna cables covering 72 miles of the subway system had deteriorated to such an extent that they could not carry a signal. According to news reports, it will cost the authority an additional $36 million to repair.

The deployment was part of a 10-year plan to update an antiquated radio network that often left transit police officers and street officers unable to communicate with each other. Previously, police officers patrolling the subterranean rail lines depended on a VHF radio system that was incompatible with a UHF system used by officers who worked above ground.

Tony Lamano, who retired in 1986 after 21 years as a transit beat cop, remembers when the VHF and UHF systems were being field-tested in the NYC subway. This was in 1965, when the transit police worked directly for the MTA. He carried two radios: a transit police VHF radio and a UHF radio used by the NYPD.

Lamano said that when he worked in the operations unit manning the radio console, transit officers' transmissions would be riddled with interference or would simply not work at all.

"You couldn't transmit; you couldn't receive," he said. "The officer would have to move over a few feet to figure out where he could send the signal from."

When he first started out in the 1980s in the Bronx, retired transit beat cop W.K. Brown also carried a NYPD street radio and a transit radio. Brown worked the 3 p.m. to midnight shift and encountered emergencies ranging from routine sick passengers to fires, heart attacks, robberies, murders and suicides. Carrying two radios meant repeating a distress signal twice - once to the MTA and once to the NYPD command center, he said. The hope was that someone received it.

The transit police were placed under the umbrella of the NYPD in 1995, and the agencies jointly agreed to build a microwave-based system that was capable of consistently carrying police signals throughout the underground railway. When the system switched over to microwave, Brown thought "everything is going to be on the up-and-up now because we'll be equal with radio transmissions with the guys on the street."

But although it was an improvement over what officers used in the past, the system still benefited street officers more than the underground officers because dead spots existed throughout the tunnel system, which put transit police at risk, he said. Brown recalled one incident when he was apprehending a perpetrator at about 10:30 p.m. and called over his radio for backup. There was no answer. He had found himself in one of the dead spots without the ability to transmit a distress call over-the-air.

Luckily, a train pulled into the station, and two passengers recognized he was in trouble and ran to the token booth to alert an MTA clerk, Brown said. To get the message to the NYPD command center, the token booth clerk pushed an emergency button in the booth to signal downtown. Downtown called back, and the clerk told them, "I think there is a cop fighting someone down there."

"You could be calling for help and no one hears you," Brown said. "Sometimes you're wrestling with [a suspect], and you have to pray that maybe a passenger walks by and you can ask that person to run up to the token booth or the telephone, dial 911 or go find someone to tell that an officer is having a problem and his radio isn't working."

The problems encountered by transit police aren't limited to just the city's subterranean levels. Lamano once found himself in a tough situation when his radio failed during his attempt to subdue a passenger whom he had pulled off an elevated train in Coney Island for smoking. The passenger ended up pushing him down the stairs, and a foot pursuit followed. He called for backup over the radio. When he caught the suspect on the street, he called again over the radio and only heard a "repeat, repeat" call from headquarters.

"Fortunately, one of the radio cars passing in the area heard the transmission," he said. "Needless to say, my rear-end was saved."

The unreliability of radio communications has been a hot topic with officers for decades, Lamano said. It is such a prevalent problem that when training new officers assigned to the transit detail, veterans instruct them to stand in specific areas when attempting to send a radio communication and to recognize that the absence of normal chatter for more than 5 or 10 minutes means they should move to another location.

Ironically, while the MTA awaits police department approval to activate the new radio system, the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DITT) is working on a futuristic wireless data system for first-responders throughout the city. The DITT awarded Northrop Grumman a 5-year, $500 million contract to build a wireless broadband network dedicated to first responders and other city agencies. Northrop chose IPWireless' mobile telecommunications system for the wireless high-speed data and video network, which currently is being field-tested in Manhattan.

"This specifically is for city services, such as fire, police and city works," said Nick Sborne, DITT spokesperson. "Whether transit will be able to use it, that we don't know. But we're not ruling out any applications at this point."

Even if the data network ultimately is accessible to transit officers, it still wouldn't solve the problem of radio signals transmitted from transit-police radios that seemingly fail at the most inopportune moments.

"If you're dealing with a perpetrator, and you can't move and your radio doesn't work, you just pray for the best," Lamano said. 

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