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Faulty MTA Radios Called Safety Risk

Officers say outdated communications system could hurt emergency response

June 20, 1995

By CHIP JACOBS
Daily News Staff Writers

From the neon-lighted stations of the downtown subway to the bus routes of the San Fernando Valley, the radio communications system used by transit police to safeguard riders is plagued with technical bugs that could cripple emergency response, records and interviews show.

Hand-held radios relied on by officers patrolling the Metro Red Line go “dead” in certain spots. Calls for backup help by their colleagues pursuing criminal suspects are sometimes static-plagued or garbled by bleedover interference from taxicab drivers, according to the Metropolitan Transit Police Officers Association, which represents most of the 350 transit officers.

Moreover, transit cops can’t directly contact the Los Angeles Police Department to assist them on everything ranging from petty thefts to natural calamities.

“I can’t sit here and let them tell the public everything is hunky-dory with the system because it’s not,” said Dan Robins, a transit officer for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and an association board member. “All I can say is that we are riding on borrowed time.”

Last week, MTA transit police officers assigned to bus patrol were chasing robbery suspects in Compton and lost them because the radio system delayed their pleas for backup help, Robins said.

Last summer, then-MTA transit police Sgt. Scott Anderson seemed to sum up the exasperation of many of his colleagues when he wrote in his daily report: “This radio system is terrible and somebody is going to get killed or hurt if it doesn’t get fixed.”

For several years, the association, which represent rank-and-file officers working for the MTA has quietly – and unsuccessfully – lobbied officials to overhaul a communications grid it worries is endangering both riders and the officers sworn to protect them.

Transit officers went public with their complaints last week, after the Daily News reported that Hand-held radios used by LAPD officers and city firefighters are subject to sometimes acute static when they are inside the subway tunnels and on station platforms.

The article quoted MTA officials acknowledging the problems with radios used by city police and firefighters, but those same officials said the communication system used by transit police functioned properly.

After the story appeared, the association’s executive board wrote a letter to the Daily News asserting that the radios used by MTA officers are also plagued by static interference and other problems.

The letter said the MTA is “gambling with the lives of the transit riding public as well as its police officers” by failing to upgrade the radio system.

“We have voiced our concerns to the administration without success,” the letter said.

MTA Capt. Dennis Conte acknowledged the communications radio used by officers to track crime on agency buses needs updating, although he knew of few glitches with Red Line radios.

“Yes, we acknowledge we have an antiquated system above-ground,” Conte said. “But it’s not serious enough to be a public safety threat.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, a leading subway critic on the transit agency’s board, said he would ask the MTA’s inspector general’s office to investigate the radio network. Equipment for the Red Line’s communications-security system exceeded $60 million.

“The debacle continues with communications systems that can’t communicate,” said Antonovich. “We need instant communications – and a safe system can’t be adequate if you have to go through an intermediary. Every second is vital.”

Conte said a $600,000 appropriation transit police are seeking in the upcoming budget should reduce interference problems experienced by MTA police, both in the subway system and above ground.

In a July 1994 grievance obtained by this newspaper, the association claimed “radio communication is nearly nonexistent” in the Valley.

Transit police in the Valley complain about static, broken transmissions and other problems they have had when responding to crimes on buses and pursuing graffiti taggers, according to memos by field officers.

At one point last year, it grew so bad officers in the Northridge area couldn’t contact each other directly and had to relay messages through their dispatch center, according to a July 21, 1994, memo from Sgt. Sheri Barberic to Conte.

The troubles also extend to the MTA’s Main Street building in downtown Los Angeles. Inside the building, police can’t operate their radios because the structure blocks clear radio signals from going through, a frequent concern by officers working downtown.

Officers working in outlying areas served by MTA’s buses also have noted difficulties broadcasting and receiving messages.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that the MTA bus service area has grown to 196 square miles – too large for the antennas and equipment from the 1970s to handle.

What’s needed, some experts believe are noise-canceling devices on the radios and additional receivers that boost the signals and help them get past obstructing mountains and skyscrapers.

An analysis, by Schema Systems Inc., an independent consulting group based in Whittier, said the system is “frequently overloaded – especially when the police are handling more than one incident at the time.”

MTA transit police Sgt. Scott Pawlicki, also an association board member who supervised Red Line patrols in 1993 and 1994, said claims that subway communications work reliably is hogwash.

He said transmissions are often delayed inside the tunnel or subject to interference near station entrances, and that officers often have to be in close proximity to each other for their radios to work effectively.

Moreover, according to the grievance statement and interviews, MTA transit police on the Red Line or in buildings and other structures can’t directly contact their colleagues on the Metro Blue Line, the Los Angeles-Long Beach light rail line, because of the technical limitations of the radios.

Pawlicki said the unreliability of the system – above and below ground – is what worries him. He remembers instances when officers requesting help have to repeat their transmission several times or learn later it never went out.

“Some days the system will work fine. Other days it’s a (mess),” said Pawlicki.

“We’ve written (to superiors) about this so much it’s a joke.”