Radio signals failed firefighters scaling Charlotte high-rise

First responders couldn’t communicate while rescuing people stranded in elevators
First responders couldn’t communicate while rescuing people stranded in elevators
Published: Nov. 16, 2023 at 6:49 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A three-alarm emergency at one of Uptown’s most recognizable skyscrapers revealed alarming communication failures for first responders that put them, and the people they’re rescuing, in danger.

Firefighters climbing the stairs in the new Wells Fargo building to evacuate people trapped in elevators often couldn’t communicate with each other because of weak emergency responder radio signals.

According to a study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “communication failures are a key contributing factor to firefighter deaths.” A battalion chief who wrote a memo on Charlotte Fire’s response cited the study while describing the difficulty and danger it posed to everyone who entered the building trying to rescue others.

The report from the July 10th incident on South Tryon St. says the regular operation channel was “spotty,” and other channels used for smaller units to talk were quickly “overloaded.”

The battalion chief wrote he “understand(s) that communications are always going to be an issue.”

A WBTV investigation revealed that the emergency radio system is often failing in Charlotte when first responders need it most.

WBTV reviewed the radio traffic from the fire response. One Charlotte firefighter said he had to go out to a window to get through on the radio. Many others had to ask for information to be repeated because the signal wasn’t getting through.

“If they can’t communicate, then they’re at risk, and so are the building occupants because they can’t respond to you, they can’t hear you,” Steve Wheeler told WBTV.

Wheeler works for JDRM in Ohio and specializes in ensuring buildings aren’t blocking emergency radio channels.

In Mecklenburg County, firefighters, police, paramedics, and all first responders operate on channels in the 800 MHz range. Newer construction materials are helping keep energy costs down and are also keeping radio signals out.

“It’s critical that emergency responders in the building be able to talk to each other,” Wheeler said.

North Carolina Fire Code requires a series of tests to ensure there aren’t significant dead zones in new buildings. A radio enhancement system is required if the building fails such a test. The code allows for several other exceptions at the discretion of the local fire department.

Wheeler told WBTV he often finds companies installing the communication equipment incorrectly and local fire departments that don’t know enough about the code to properly enforce it.

“I think the biggest gap between what the code requires and what is being done is enforcement and application,” Wheeler said.

In response to questions about this story, a Charlotte Fire Department spokesperson sent more than 15 inspection reports that took place after the electrical fire at 550 South Tryon.

The spokesperson also wrote, “the power was controlled to the building, so the amplifier system did not work.”

North Carolina Fire Code requires buildings with radio-enhancing systems to have generators to make sure there’s radio coverage in almost any situation.

The inspection reports do not include any indication the emergency responder radio system is now properly backed up by standby power. Charlotte Fire did not respond to WBTV’s questions, asking whether that issue was corrected.

A spokesperson for Wells Fargo wrote WBTV that the company had “nothing to add” to the story.

In response to WBTV’s question about how the fire department is ensuring Uptown high-rises comply with the radio requirements, a spokesperson said a “guide is given to anyone installing a bidirectional amplifier or distributed antenna system.”