New Radios Letting Metro Police Down

Seven underground stations and four tunnel segments have poor reception.
Seven underground stations and four tunnel segments have poor reception. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006

Persistent problems with a $60 million radio system that Metro bought six years ago have forced transit police to rely on their old radios underground, raising questions about the transit authority's ability to respond to emergencies at a time of heightened concern nationwide about the safety of public transportation.

The new radios offer extra security and communications features that are valuable to officers responding to a crime, a terrorist attack or another emergency, such as a tunnel fire or collision, that would require an evacuation. But there are some Metro stations and tunnels where officers cannot be heard reliably on the new radios.

That means the 300 Metro Transit Police officers who patrol the nation's second-busiest subway system must carry two radios -- an old one and a new one -- to ensure that they can communicate with each other and central dispatch at all times. The old system is 30 years old and has only one channel, which permits only one conversation at a time. In emergencies, supervisors sometimes resort to sending runners to give instructions.

Officials with Motorola Inc., which designed and installed the new system, say they do not know when it will become fully operational.

The new radios are more rugged than cellphones -- they work even after being run over by a car -- and have up to 255 channels, allowing for immediate communication with several groups during routine operations as well as in emergencies. An emergency button can send a signal to police dispatch and immediately identify the officer using the radio.

In the year since bombs killed dozens of subway and bus passengers in London, Metro says it has enhanced security through increased policing, training and customer outreach, including encouraging riders to report unusual behavior and unattended packages.

"But what good is the training if you run into a scenario and it's potluck whether you get out because the radio is down?" said ElWarren Weatherspoon, a five-year veteran of the transit police and the chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police/Metro Transit Police Department labor committee.

The radio, he said, more than a gun, is the single most important piece of equipment officers carry.

Metro Transit Police Chief Polly L. Hanson said the delays in completing the radio system have been frustrating. "This project was started under my predecessor. I became chief in 2002, and it's conceivable that the department could be on its third chief before the project is completed," she said.

But security has not been compromised, she said. "The radio system problems have never prevented the Metro Transit Police Department from doing what it needed to do," she said.

Officers use the old radio as their primary communication underground and carry the new one as backup. They also have access to telephones in station kiosks and in emergency call-boxes that are located every 800 feet along the tracks. Many officers also have personal cellphones. Transit police receive daily updates about radio trouble spots and know to take extra precautions, officials said.

There is poor radio reception in seven underground stations and four tunnel segments, according to officials, who would not identify the locations because of security reasons.

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