Problems with HFD's new radios raise concerns

HOUSTON – Problems with the Houston Fire Department's new radio system are causing concern among the rank and file.

The death of five firefighters in 2013 was attributed in part to problems with the radios they were carrying.

In July, HFD rolled out a new radio system using Motorola APX 6000 handheld radios, but on July 28, firefighters at fire stations #31 and #26 discovered their voice transmissions were unreadable when they tried to communicate with them using microphones in their new face masks.

When they tried to use them, they quickly discovered it sounded like they were underwater.

The department sent out an alert to all stations the same day, ordering, “Until the issue can be corrected all members are to immediately discontinue using the lapel microphones and in-mask communication devices.”

Houston Professional Firefighters Association President Marty Lancton said the issues raise concerns about the entire system.

“If this is the new system and new radio being implemented, we do not want a repeat of losing one of our firefighters (because) of radio issues. We have lost too many of our brothers and sisters,” Lancton said.

Memories are still fresh of the department’s worst day when, on May 31, 2013, five firefighters died in the Southwest Inn fire. Their deaths were attributed in part to communication failures.

“A radio must work propertly and if a call from (a) citizen or firefighter does not work, it can have devestating consequences,” Lancton said.

Assistant Fire Chief Rodney West said the department believes the new radios themselves are sound, but that accessories like the in-mask microphones and lapel mikes used with them aren’t working correctly. West said they involve new technology and says the department is working with the vendors, Motorola and 3M Scott Safety, to sort out the problems.

The department began testing radio components at four fire stations on Thursday and will continue until problems are resolved with all of the components in use.