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The collapse of the Twin Towers exposed flaws and limitations in emergency communications that the city has been looking ever since to correct. As part of that effort, City Hall announced Tuesday that in one of its most ambitious post–9-11 projects—the Citywide Mobile Wireless Network—the communications giant Motorola would be a partner.
But families of some slain firefighters (and others) have long alleged that Motorola and the city were partners in something else: the radio woes that might have cost lives at the World Trade Center.
Motorola is one of two companies that will undertake a six-month pilot of the wireless network. The other is Northrop Grumman, manufacturer of nuclear-powered warships and electronic defense systems. The city says the firms’ $2.7 million test run in Lower Manhattan is aimed at allowing cops and firefighters “to quickly access and download information including city maps, building plans and federal and state counter-terrorism and crime databases from police vehicles and fire and EMS apparatus,” as well as give inspectors from various city agencies access to data. After the trial period, if the city picks one of the two firms, the five-year cost of the full project—dubbed by DoITT as “the first of its kind in the country”—is pegged at $500 million. The city could offset some of that cost with federal homeland security money.
On 9-11, New York City firefighters were using the same radios that had failed to work properly in the 1993 attack the WTC. The reason the outdated equipment was in use was that a newer Motorola model, introduced earlier in 2001, was quickly withdrawn from the field after problems surfaced. A subsequent report by then-City Comptroller Alan Hevesi found irregularities in the purchasing of those new radios. With the old models in hand, firefighters climbing the towers sometimes had trouble hearing information. These problems weren’t unique to 9-11: Radios don’t work well in steel high-rises or when lots of people want to talk at the same time. What was unique at the WTC was the possibility that radio failures prevented rescuers from escaping. Some firefighters apparently never heard the call to evacuate the North Tower after the South Tower collapse. Now, firefighters are using a revamped version of the Motorola radios that were pulled earlier in 2001.
Families of several deceased firefighters sued the city and Motorola but were tossed out of court because, the way federal judges saw it, they had forfeited their right to sue when they took cash from the Victims Compensation Fund. Earlier this year, some of the former plaintiffs discussed the idea of mounting an independent investigation into the radio problems.
Meanwhile, the city has continued to do business with Motorola—which is not surprising, given the firm’s prominence in the field. Back in January, the city awarded a $75 million contract to the company to create a comprehensive emergency response band on channel 16. Over the years the company has done more than $400,000,000 in work for the city, including $10 million so far this year in purchase orders for 15 different agencies.
Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, ranked third among all defense contractors in fiscal year 2005, with $13.5 billion in awards from the Pentagon. That despite the fact that in 2003 the firm agreed to an $80 settlement with the Justice Department, including $20 million “to resolve allegations that the company knowingly sold the Navy unmanned aerial vehicles, known as Target drones, that contained defective parts.” Three years earlier the firm agreed to fork over $750,000 “to settle claims arising from its failure to properly manufacture more than 5,000 replacement parts it made for use on military aircraft.” Defense contractors often make those types of payments, yet keep receiving business from the DoD.