Boston Transit Communications Systems Incompatible and 'Obsolete'

Nearly four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York highlighted the crucial need for rescuers from different agencies to be able to talk to each other, the MBTA continues operating with 25-year-old radio systems that the authority acknowledges in a recent memo "are considered unreliable and obsolete."

Though installation of a "dependable, state-of-the-art radio system" is about to begin, T officials say it will probably be more than two years before train operators and transit police will be able to use their radios to speak with Boston police officers, firefighters, and other first responders.

The radio incompatibility is one of several issues that state legislators plan to raise with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority at a hearing today on transit security following last month's bombings on London's subway and bus network.

"You would think a simple thing like coordinating efforts among different departments, bringing up to speed communications, would have been in place by now," said Representative Theodore C. Speliotis, a Danvers Democrat who is vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety & Homeland Security. "If they're not, I'm going to be very disappointed."

The MBTA Board of Directors approved a $7.9 million contract last month with a Florida company to install a new digital radio system. It will be able to operate off of multiple frequencies using a higher bandwidth, making it easier for different groups to share channels and contact each other. Other contracts totaling $52.9 million have been issued to design the system and install antennas and equipment in the subway tunnels.

Installation is expected to take 1 1/2 to 2 years. After the T has its new radios, then it can began working to get other agencies on the same system, said Jeff Parker, director of subway operations.

"With the new system, we would have the flexibility of tying in to different groups," Parker said yesterday.

The T has already installed radio repeaters for the Boston Fire Department in the tunnels, he said, so firefighters responding to an emergency underground can talk to each other and their dispatchers. Firefighters are unable to communicate by radio with transit police or train personnel, however.

Daniel Grabauskas, the MBTA's general manager, said the concern over potential communication problems is legitimate and the authority is working toward fixing them.

"We want to have the optimum system that optimizes our ability to communicate, particularly in times of crisis," Grabauskas said yesterday after a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly renovated Savin Hill Station on the Red Line in Dorchester. "We want to make sure everybody can talk to one another."

The Public Safety Committee's chairman, however, said the project hasn't moved fast enough.

"If we learned anything from 9/11, it was that the ability of different emergency responders to all communicate with one another is the most critical element of any emergency management plan," said Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, a Cambridge Democrat. "That is something which should have been done a long time ago."

Committee members also plan to ask the T about evacuation plans as well as recent news reports that supposedly bomb-proof trash cans it purchased don't work, and that it has trouble controlling who gets master keys to subway stations.

Another topic expected to come up is the cost of prolonged enhanced security. The T has been on a heightened orange level alert since the July 7 London bombings. That includes extra shifts for police and other personnel.

"We must be running up a lot of overtime," Speliotis said. "How long can we sustain this?"

Grabauskas said operating under the extended orange threat level is challenging.

"It's labor intensive and costly, but there's no place I think you can trade off for the safety of our passengers," he said.

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