SEPTA nears test of emergency communication system

The 9/11 Commission says a major piece of unfinished business is making sure all police, firefighters and other emergency responders can connect via two-way radios. If a major incident were to happen in the tunnels of the SEPTA system, first responders could have trouble being heard.

A solution in the works could cost up to $40 million to put in a system to send radio signals from SEPTA’s Market-Frankford and Broad Street subway lines to the surface in time of emergency.

The old way was a human relay, said City Councilman Frank Rizzo.

“At one time, they had to have a firefighter or police officer every 25 or 30 feet, hollering back and forth from the subway concourse to the street level, requests for additional equipment or some other need for the people responding below grade,” he said.

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Now SEPTA has 50 portable two-way radios available on its frequencies for first responders in time of crisis. But officials say 50 radios would not be enough for a big incident.

New technology, which is just about to be tested, involves a portable unit about the size of a small suitcase, said. SEPTA Police Chief Richard Evans. The equipment, he said, would bridge the gap between SEPTA’s radios and those used by police and firefighters, as well as costing far less than wiring all the tunnels.

“We hope that it will allow emergency responders who are not on our frequency to communicate from underground either to their personnel or to our personnel if we are interconnected above ground,” Evans said.

Evans says the plan has evolved over the years.

“We have an infrastructure that we put together back in 2006 that houses radios from a number of different police agencies,” he said. “That is connected to an antenna farm on the roof of this building that will connect up to 200 dissimilar radio frequencies.”

In addition to emergency radios, the system can connect to cell phones and even those consumer radios that people use to keep track of the family while on vacation.

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