First responders to talk on new radio system - someday

October 26, 2011 2:54:42 PM PDT
One of the key findings of the 9/11 Commission was that police, fire and other first responders need to be able to talk to each other during big emergencies.

Ten years later, U.S. Homeland Security officials came to a national police chiefs meeting in Chicago to say they have solved that problem with a new radio system. But don't expect the changes anytime soon.

The September 11th terrorist attacks. A deadly fire at 69 W. Washington. And last winter's blizzard that stranded 500 drivers on Lake Shore Drive. All incidents, experts say, that could have been handled better if first responders could communicate more easily.

"An incident commander has to sit in a command post sometimes with three or four different radios trying to talk to different agencies that are coming to help," said Deputy Commission Jose Santiago, Chicago Fire Department.

Right now in Chicago first responders can find themselves weighed down by radios. For example, they need on radio to talk to paramedics, another one to talk to firefighters and if members of the Chicago Fire Department want to talk directly to police, they are out of luck.

Homeland Security now says it has solved that problem.

"Multiple agencies can communicate using one radio?.The products for the most part are already in the market place. Our goal has been met," said Thomas Chirhart, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

One problem: Cost. It will cost tens of millions of dollars to fully make the switch in a city the size of Chicago.

"Are we months or years away from everyone being able to talk to each other in Chicago?" ABC7's Ben Bradley asked city emergency leaders. "I think we are years away from where we were," said Gary Schenkel, Chicago Emergency Management Director. "But I think we're still years away from truly being able to interoperate with all the agencies out there."

With protesters clogging streets on an almost daily basis, and the even rowdier summit of world leaders coming here in May, first responders and their ability to communicate will be put to the test.

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