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NYC skyscrapers lack key equipment

Emergency radio devices still rare

NEW YORK -- Nearly five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, most city skyscrapers still lack a potentially lifesaving piece of equipment that allows firefighters to use walkie-talkies in the inner recesses of tall buildings, a top fire official said yesterday.

Radio repeaters are found in only a scattering of Manhattan buildings, fire department Deputy Commissioner Frank Cruthers said at a ceremony celebrating the installation of a repeater system at one of the city's tallest towers.

The 48-story skyscraper at 4 Times Square is the world headquarters of Conde Nast Publications and the first of eight buildings getting radio repeaters this year as a result of efforts by the Durst Organization, one of the city's largest privately owned real estate firms.

A ninth building, the giant Bank of America Tower, will also have a repeater when construction is complete in 2008, the firm said.

The system, which works like an antenna to boost and relay signals, allows firefighters responding to emergencies to use their radios in places signals have a tough time penetrating, including stairwells, basements, and elevator shafts. The new generation of repeater in the building at 4 Times Square is also capable of using voice-over-Internet technology to relay phone calls from 911 dispatchers.

The Durst Organization is paying for the upgrades. The repeater for the Conde Nast building cost about $300,000.

James Boyle, a retired firefighter and former president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said the system might prevent some of the problems that plagued the department's response to the 2001 World Trade Center attack.

``No matter what anyone says, the radio response was not correct that day," said Boyle, whose firefighter son, Michael, was among those killed. ``It's very important to me, and to all the families, that this is being done."

Equipment shortcomings made for chaos during the evacuation of the trade center complex.

Commanders on the ground struggled to contact firefighters on upper floors. Firefighters in the north tower were unaware the south tower had collapsed. Many apparently never received an order to evacuate.

The trade center buildings were actually among the few in the city to have a radio repeater system, but it either did not function, worked intermittently, or was mistakenly believed to be broken by on-ground commanders.

Since the disaster, the fire department has been upgrading its communications equipment.

But even with improvements, problems remain that could be eased if more buildings had hard-wired repeaters, said Glenn Corbett, a fire science specialist.

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