Philadelphia Mayday Calls: Heard or Not?

As city officials work out the kinks in a new $54 million public-safety radio system, they note with relief that no one has been hurt as a result of start-up problems.

Now try telling that to Leon Phipps.

Phipps, a firefighter for 23 years, was trapped in a house fire on April 12 and believes he almost died because of problems with his Motorola radio.

"What dictionary are you using to describe hurt?" Phipps asked.

Phipps, 53, said that after several Mayday calls went unheeded, his air tank ran out of oxygen and he passed out. He suffered burns to his esophagus and lung damage, requiring an 11-day stay in intensive care.

Fire Department officials are investigating what happened to Phipps, but acting Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said an initial review showed no problems with radio communication.

City Council, meanwhile, is to hold a second hearing today to examine complaints about the new radios.

"This radio system is our police officers' and firefighters' lifeline," said Councilman Frank Rizzo, who called for the hearing. "I don't think there is an issue more important than this system working."

Two years ago, the city switched to a digital radio system that provided more channels and allowed all city agencies to talk on the same frequencies during major emergencies.

But in recent months, firefighters have filed a steady number of complaints about the Motorola system, which operates on the 800-megahertz band of the radio-frequency spectrum.

Firefighters have reported losing reception at fire scenes. Police, too, have had problems. On three occasions this year, part or all of the police system was out of service for varying lengths of time.

City officials said they were reviewing complaints and working with Motorola Inc. to resolve glitches in the two-year-old system. One issue under investigation is whether cell-phone transmissions could be interfering with fire radios.

"You're going to find out things as the system gets used," Joseph James, the city's deputy commissioner of public property, said.

Phipps' overnight shift on April 12 turned into a nightmare that won't end. Just talking about the accident made his hands shake and tears well up.

A few minutes after midnight, a call came in to Ladder 24 in West Philadelphia for a house fire in the 900 block of North 66th Street.

Phipps was sent to the second floor to search for anyone who might be trapped. He entered a rear bedroom, crawling because the air was already thick with smoke.

Phipps, who was unable to see as far as a foot in front of him, had to follow the perimeter of the room with his hands. Making his way around the room once, he reached the spot where he thought the door should be.

But he couldn't feel an opening. The door had shut.

Searching for the door frame with his heavy leather gloves, Phipps felt as though he was going around in circles. "There has to be a way out of this," he kept telling himself. "Where's the door?"

He found a window and smashed the glass, thinking he could escape that way. Instead, all the heat that was building from the fire in the basement came rushing up to the second floor and out the window with the force of a cork popping off a champagne bottle.

"This can't be happening," Phipps thought.

He reached for his microphone, which was clipped above his heart on the outside of his heavy protective jacket.

"I'm trapped!" he screamed. "Help!"

No answer.

Phipps was crouched on top of a mattress on the floor, trying to protect himself from the heat coming from below.

Again he reached for his microphone.

"Ladder 24 search!" he yelled, signaling to everyone that a call was coming from the firefighter handling searches on the upper floor.

"I'm trapped in the back bedroom!"

He took off his glove and reached for his radio in a pouch on the outside of his coat. He pushed an orange emergency button that is supposed to send a distress message to the Fire Department's dispatch center.

At the same time, when the emergency button is pushed, the new radios are supposed to automatically open the microphone to all radios for 10 seconds so anyone listening could hear what was going on.

"This is Ladder 24. I'm on the second-floor back bedroom. I'm trapped! I'm in deep trouble!"

Silence.

An alarm on his air tank sounded. Phipps had a five-minute supply of oxygen. He hit the emergency button a second time. He began feeling dizzy.

When he collapsed, another alarm on the air tank sounded - this one a screeching signal that notified everyone within earshot that a firefighter was down. A firefighter on the first floor came to his rescue.

According to a computer log of the data handled that night by dispatchers, there was one entry of an emergency signal from Phipps' radio - not the two that he said he sent.

Ayers said the Fire Department would review the radio transcripts from that night to see what might have been communicated by Phipps.

He said an official critique of the fire last spring uncovered no radio problems.

On Sept. 10, however, Motorola notified the Fire Department that the open-microphone feature for the emergency button might not always work.

Ayers said that in Phipps' case, "no one can tell me whether it opened or didn't open. It's something I'm pressing for right now."

Motorola also has advised the department that the radios are designed to send encrypted messages. But if a user inadvertently toggles to a "clear" setting, the radio won't transmit a message. Instead, it would send a blocked signal that sounds like a "bonk."

John McFadden, a Motorola sales vice president, said he was not aware of any complaints about the radios from firefighters.

"Most departments have their own internal investigative process," McFadden said. "Very rarely do they let the vendor know unless there's something wrong with the system."

Phipps, of Wynnefield, has returned to light duty, working at the Fireman's Hall museum in Old City. Since his accident, he can't stop himself from asking his colleagues whether they heard him that night.

"Some said they didn't hear me," Phipps said. "Some said it came out garbled. And that's like not hearing it at all."

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