The Oregonian: Emergency calls crowded out

Published in The Oregonian on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2001.

Summary: Interference from cell phone towers is putting the lives of police and firefighters at risk as authorities find their radio transmissions blocked during times of crisis  

By Emily Tsao and Ryan Frank

An invisible threat endangers the lives of police officers: Across the country, officers grab for a radio only to find their voices blocked by a nearby cellular phone tower emitting more powerful transmissions.

In a six-month investigation, The Oregonian found that in at least 28 states, public safety agencies reported at least one instance of cell phone tower interference with their radios or in-car computers.

No officers have been hurt or killed as a result of the impediment. But agencies across the country say the interference often threatens public safety — and the lives of police officers and firefighters.

Among the incidents:

* In June, two Denver police officers on a narcotics surveillance witnessed a shooting and tried to call for emergency backup. Their radios wouldn’t work until they ran a block. Radios failed again in the same location two weeks later during a foot chase.

* In April, two Portland officers lost radio connection as they rushed to a reported burglary near the airport.

* In November 2000, 12 officers in Scottsdale, Ariz., stood within 100 feet of one another but couldn’t use their radios as they searched for a man who had waved a gun during a barroom brawl.

* In June, 2000, a Tigard police officer faced an armed man and radioed for backup. Only the word “gun” went through.

“The worst-case scenario is an officer gets killed,” said Detective Aaron Minor of the Scottsdale, Ariz., Police Department, which estimates that signals from a nearby cell phone tower interfered with police radios at least 300 times during a seven-month period last year.

“Obviously, this could involve the loss of life,” said Gloria Tristani, a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission.

In interviews, public safety managers and FCC officials say that one cell phone company alone — Nextel Communications of Reston, Va. — is the source of interference with public safety communications in 21 states.

Unlike other cell phone companies, Nextel uses radio frequencies intertwined with or adjacent to those used by public safety radios.

Nextel agrees the interference is serious but says it occurs in only a handful of the hundreds of cities where it operates. “This isn’t a widespread national problem,” said Nextel Vice President Lawrence Krevor, who acknowledges that the towers the company uses cause interference in 12 states.

Nextel estimates a nationwide fix could cost millions of dollars. Public safety officials say it could be billions. But neither they, Nextel nor the FCC can agree on whom should pay.

Krevor said Nextel is committed to stopping the interference on a case-by-case basis. But those fixes often only reduce interference, not stop it.

The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the airwaves, admits it unwittingly set the stage for this problem three decades ago when it doled out the frequencies that now conflict. But Kathleen Ham, deputy chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, said the commission is not responsible for fixing it because no one is breaking the law.

Police and fire chiefs could reduce interference with new equipment, but officials say they can’t afford to replace outdated radios.

This weekend — more than two years after a Washington County radio technician first alerted the FCC that Nextel towers were garbling firefighters’ communications near Beaverton — state, federal and company officials are meeting in Salt Lake City to try to determine the extent of the problem nationwide and lay out a program to fix it.

The wireless industry projects that its customer base will grow by more than 40 percent over the next two years, to 168 million. As a result, a wide range of industry experts say cell phone tower interference will get worse.

Frequencies allocated 

All radio transmissions — from television signals to satellite communications to AM/FM radio — are sent through the air in waves of varying lengths. All these waves are transmitted through a spectrum that ranges from about 9 kilohertz for submarine communications to 300 gigahertz for scientific satellites. The FCC regulates all transmissions in the United States, allocating users from one end of the spectrum to the other.

In the 1970s, long before cellular phones became popular, police officers fought for extra space in the spectrum, particularly in urban areas where the airwaves were used heavily. Their allocations stuck them in the lower frequencies with little or no space to add radios for new officers.

From 1974 to 1986, the FCC made available a section of the 800 megahertz band for police and fire departments and taxi and tow truck companies, among others.

The best use of the airwaves, the FCC decided, was to intertwine the users in 250 channels. The result was like 250 lanes on a highway, with police officers driving on lanes in between taxis and tow trucks. A separate allocation — a block of 800 MHz channels that are not intertwined — actually placed police between what would become two cellular companies.

The areas in which cellular carriers abut public safety transmissions would become hot spots for complex midair conflicts.

Nextel ‘s birth 

In 1987, a former FCC lawyer named Morgan O’Brien launched Nextel ‘s precursor company, a mobile radio firm, with a dream of turning it into a nationwide wireless phone provider.

Starting out as a two-way radio company, O’Brien bought thousands of 800 MHz radio frequencies from small taxi and tow truck companies.

The neighbors coexisted peaceably for years. Then, in 1991, the FCC made what would turn out to be a crucial decision. The federal agency allowed O’Brien’s company to use the frequencies for a new purpose: to build a digital network for wireless phones.

The decision gave O’Brien’s company an advantage because the radio licenses he bought were far cheaper than the ones that had been allocated to the cell phone companies that were his competitors.

These 800 MHz radio frequencies, however, were the very ones that abutted police officers and firefighters in the radio spectrum. The FCC, not realizing its decision would later affect police officers, hailed the company for using the radio spectrum more efficiently.

The company O’Brien founded later became Nextel and has flourished into the nation’s fifth-largest wireless provider with 7.7 million U.S. subscribers.

The discovery 

In the spring of 1998, firefighters at one of Washington County’s busiest fire stations noticed a mysterious phenomenon.

The alarm system at Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue’s station near the Washington Square mall stopped working properly, sometimes delaying firefighters’ response to some emergency calls in the district that covers 10 cities. Crucial radio information was sometimes garbled. Firefighters at the station complained to their 9-1-1 managers.

Spurred by the complaints, Joe Kuran, Washington County’s lead radio technician, launched an investigation.

Kuran knew that radios are not perfect. Police radios, like AM/FM radios, sometimes experience poor transmission inside buildings or tunnels. Sometimes police radios don’t work because of equipment failure, weather or nearby hills.

When Kuran and his staff checked the fire district’s radio equipment, everything seemed to function properly. But when technicians tested the radio signals, they found something mysterious. Some areas had normal signals, and other spots just a few feet away had no signal at all.

Adding to the mystery was the discovery that radio transmissions were clearer inside the station with the garage door closed and when the station’s antenna was moved inside.

Kuran and the staff looked harder.

About a quarter-mile away, they found the problem planted on top of a red-brick building: a Nextel antenna.

When Nextel shut off its site, the interference vanished.

Nextel was transmitting at frequencies similar to those used by the fire station. Becausethe cell phone tower was so close to the station, its signals overpowered fire dispatch transmissions coming from a county communications tower more than four miles away atop Council Crest.

The discovery made Washington County one of the country’s first agencies to prove cell tower interference.

Growing mystery 

An unassuming 54-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses, Kuran doesn’t have a fancy college engineering degree. He tinkered with ham radios while in high school in Wisconsin and worked in U.S. Air Force communications. He spent part of his 30-year career as a Motorola radio technician.

In November 1998, armed with his discovery, Kuran started his crusade against cell phone tower interference. He wrote what would be the first in a series of letters to FCC officials, notifying them of the problem that he said could potentially lead to the loss of life and property.

Kuran also wrote an article that appeared in the March 1999 issue of the trade journal Mobile Radio Technology, which is read by industry executives and communication engineers. His article prompted public safety officers around the country to scrutinize their own systems and wonder if cell towers were creating problems.

“Joe Kuran was the first to really nail it down,” said Kevin Kearns, telecommunications manager for King County, which includes Seattle. “He was the one who put some technical meat behind it.”

But much like in Washington County, other radio technicians had trouble confirming the sources of interference.

Cell phone operators move frequencies from tower to tower based on demand. Companies may use a handful of frequencies at one tower overnight but move them to another tower for rush-hour demand.

Some police radios constantly change channels, automatically seeking an open frequency each time officers push the talk button. Standing near a cell tower during a commuter rush, an officer’s radio may be blocked and an hour later, just fine.

As other agencies homed in on the problem, Kuran waited to hear from the FCC.

On January 19, 2000 — 13 months after Kuran wrote his letter — the FCC wrote back.

D’wana R. Terry, the FCC’s chief of public safety and private wireless division, wrote a four-paragraph letter that said neither Nextel nor Washington County violated federal guidelines. She said the parties should resolve the issue on their own.

Call for help 

Six months later, interference was still cropping up in Washington County — this time near the Tigard police station and across the street from a fire station. This incident alerted county officials that the problem was growing.

When police officers enter an unknown situation, they say, their radios are one of the most important tools they can carry because they enable officers to call for help for themselves and for others. In Tigard, the radio particularly is important because officers drive the streets alone.

“The radio — it is your lifeline,” said Tigard Officer Jeff Lain. “It is the only way you can get help and to let people know what is going on around you. When you are on your own it is scary.”

Just before 6 a.m. June 9, 2000, Lain spotted a 1984 gray Buick sedan that he said ran a stop sign. Although it looked like it would be another routine traffic stop, Lain said he also knew it could turn deadly.

His car’s red and blue lights flashed in the early morning light.

The driver and Lain stopped at a storage facility on Southwest Burnham Street, near the police station. Across the street, Anthony Passadore, also of the Tigard police, sat in his patrol car writing reports. A Nextel cell tower stood nearby.

Lain radioed his location to the dispatch center but later said that dispatcher couldn’t hear him. He said he later learned that the only words that made it through were “traffic” and “Burnham.”

Passadore said he saw Lain and heard static on his radio. Passadore said he moved his patrol car to get a better view of Lain but did not want to intrude.

When Lain approached the car, he noticed the driver’s jacket hid a handgun, according to a police report. Lain said he called for back-up but again almost all of the transmission was blocked.

Passadore said he again only heard static and did not hear Lain’s request for help. A third officer, R.J. Newman, said he heard only the word “gun.”

With no backup, Lain asked the man to get out of the car. Lain removed a loaded 9 mm handgun. By then, Newman arrived. “At no time did (the driver) inform me that he was armed,” Lain wrote in his report.

“It was lucky for me,” Lain said. “It was lucky everything turned out all right.”

Nextel admits its towers caused the interference. “It scares the hell out of us,” said Sandra Baer, a Nextel consultant in Reston, Va. “None of us wants that to happen. Police officers should be able to use their communications interference free.”

Widespread problem 

During its investigation, The Oregonian contacted more than 100 public safety officials in 50 states by phone or e-mail. In 28 states, this survey found at least one case in which officials confirmed or suspected cell phone towers had interfered with city, county or state radio systems. Among them:

* Every day for at least six months last year, Tigard police officers ending their shift could not sign off with the dispatch center while parked at the Police Department.

* In Portland, one of every three radio or computer transmissions have been interfered with in the past 2-1/2 years.

The city has spent more than $50,000 researching interference and worked closely with Nextel engineers to alleviate it. But Nancy Jesuale, Portland’s director of communications and networking, said their efforts have provided only isolated improvements.

“We cannot have any tolerance for interference to our communications from the galloping cellular market. This is unacceptable,” said Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker, who relayed his concerns during meetings with two FCC commissioners in Washington, D.C. last month.

* In Denver, police officers reported 60 complaints of interference since September.

“We have not encountered that life-threatening situation, but that is our concern — you’re living on borrowed time,” said Steven Cooper, division chief for the Denver Police Department.

* In Scottsdale, Ariz., during a seven-month period last year police officers could not use their radios when they charged into bars to break up brawls in a one-square mile entertainment district.

* In Seattle, since 1999, radios have been swamped with static or don’t work at all hundreds of times each day.

* In Phoenix, Ariz., the reach of the Police Department’s radio signals to its in-car computers was reduced by more than 13 percent, preventing officers from checking motorists for outstanding warrants.

In 21 of the 28 states, officials say they have identified Nextel as the source of the interference. In at least five other states, officials think Nextel is the cause but haven’t been able to prove it. In two states, other cellular companies are thought to be the problem.

In a handful of states where Nextel signals are causing interference, other wireless companies also have contributed to the problem.

Public safety officials say Nextel has the most definitive list of cities experiencing interference. The company refused to disclose its list to The Oregonian.

Nextel ‘s Krevor acknowledged his company is causing interference in 12 of the 27 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon and Washington. The company is working to reduce interference caused by its cell towers as they become known, he said.

In the other states Krevor said Nextel was not the cause of interference or that he had not been notified of any problems.

Some of the problems, public safety officials say, were handled by local Nextel staff. Officials in San Diego and Houston said they are experiencing only minor interference from Nextel towers.

But public safety officials say these aren’t all the cases.

“Undoubtedly, there are people experiencing the problem that we don’t know about yet,” said Glen Nash, president-elect of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, a lobbying group based in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Who’s to blame?

Nextel and the FCC deny they are responsible for fixing the problem.

Nextel officials say the company is a victim of circumstance. After all, they say, the FCC approved the company’s plan to build a digital network on frequencies next to police and fire departments.

“With all due respect, Nextel didn’t cause the problem,” said Robert S. Foosaner, a Nextel senior vice president and former chief of the FCC Private Radio Bureau in the 1980s.

Nextel engineers searched for potential interference before the company launched its network in 1996 but didn’t find any, Krevor said.

“Certainly we didn’t expect it to occur,” he said. ” . . . This is not resulting from anything we’re doing outside the rules and regulations.”

King County’s Kearns said he has worked with the company to eliminate part of the interference and doesn’t “want to characterize Nextel as the great evil. We are in the same boat. We both kind of got stuck by the FCC.”

But, like Nextel , FCC officials say they couldn’t have predicted the interference and they are doing all they can to fix it.

“I really think it’s very unproductive to engage in fingerpointing,” the FCC’s Ham said. ” . . . We’re all very sensitive and do not want to cause situations where there is interference” to police and fire departments.

A report commissioned by the FCC last year said interference was an unfortunate byproduct of Nextel ‘s popularity and police departments’ demand for frequencies.

“That’s what the industry wanted,” Foosaner said of the 250 intertwined frequencies where Nextel and public safety departments operate. “There was nothing controversial about it. It was a no-brainer as far as the government was concerned. Unfortunately, 25 years later with the advance of technology, it has turned out to be a poor decision.”

Dale N. Hatfield, chief of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology from 1998 to 2000, said the commission might have predicted the interference if its engineering staff wasn’t so overworked.

Even if the commission couldn’t have predicted the problem, some public safety officials want it fixed by the FCC, which wields broad enforcement powers.

But the FCC said it sees no need to mandate any changes because Nextel and public safety officials already are working together to resolve the issue.

Foosaner said the FCC doesn’t have the people or money to spend on a solution. The FCC has one-tenth the number of employees of Nextel , and a $248 million annual budget compared with Nextel ‘s $5.7 billion in annual revenues.

The FCC’s Ham did point her finger at police departments’ outdated analog radios, which reel in Nextel ‘s signals and the interference, which newer technology could deflect.

Public safety officials admit they could halt part of the interference with new radios, but police and fire chiefs are reluctant to ask taxpayers to hand over millions of dollars to pay for them.

Washington County’s Kuran says the agency seven years ago spent $6.7 million on a state-of-the-art Motorola radio system with a 10-year life span. This year, the agency is planning a $9 million system update that doesn’t include new handheld radios.

Portland spent $15 million on a system with a 15-year life span in 1994. The city also is in the midst of a $250,000 upgrade to beam stronger signals to the 80 agencies covered by the system.

Technicians designed the system around its known weaknesses: thick walls and deep canyons. But the Nextel interference introduced flaws the radios weren’t designed to work around, Kuran said.

Repeat mistake? 

Some public safety and cellular industry experts fear that the FCC is setting the stage for another midair clash — this time in the 700 MHz band.

The commission plans to allocate a section of the band for police officers and wireless companies such as Nextel .

The FCC says it has taken measures to prevent cellular frequencies from bleeding into public safety channels. 

But public safety officials and those in the cellular industry, including Nextel and equipment manufacturer Motorola, say the measures are not enough. 

Motorola officials say the FCC rules still allow cellular companies to use powerful transmissions that would clash with public safety frequencies, creating a virtual repeat of the problems on the 800 MHz band. 

“The effect on public safety system would be cataclysmic . . . ” Steve Sharkey, the company’s director of telecommunications regulation, wrote to the FCC in December.

The 700 MHz auction was most recently scheduled for September but was delayed for the fifth time last month while the FCC considers the concerns. The auction has not been rescheduled.

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