Airport latest digital radio 'blind spot'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2012, 12:00am


Terminal One of Hong Kong's airport, which handles as many as 150,000 travellers a day, is the latest 'blind spot' in the Fire Services Department's new HK$178 million digital radio system.

This follows disclosure that firefighters using the new system cannot communicate well in MTR tunnels, in parts of the new government headquarters in Admiralty, and with government helicopters.

It has raised new fears that the safety of the officers and the public is being compromised amid criticism that the department began using the new system in February before it was ready.

Firefighters have to bring their old analogue equipment to known blind spots and lug heavy signal repeaters to places where long-distance communication is needed.

James To Kun-sun, chairman of the Legislative Council's security panel, said the department should have made better plans for the introduction of the new system.

'It is closely related to the safety of Hongkongers and the officers. Communication with other officers is of paramount importance because fighting fires is not an individual effort but teamwork,' To said, adding the new system should have been widely compatible before its commission on February 1.

The department is still in the process of upgrading its radio equipment from analogue to digital in some places including the airport and MTR tunnels.

Work at the airport should be completed next month, it said, but work at the MTR stations - starting with the Ma On Shan line - would not be completed until next year or 2014.

A fire services officer said commanders who wished to communicate with the control centre needed to bring analogue radios to fire scenes that are not ready for the new digital radio system.

Firefighters who need to communicate with each other from a distance using the digital radio system also need to bring a portable signal repeater that weighs more than 4kg.

'The technology has advanced, but it has also brought us a lot of trouble,' said the officer, who did not want to be identified.

Au Wah-kin, secretary of the Fire Services Department Staffs General Association, said that as firefighters' safety was reliant on the new radio system, he hoped the department would complete the installation of amplifiers as soon as possible.

Although the Airport Authority said it could share its antenna system with firefighters, the department said it needed to install associated equipment such as base stations and amplifiers to enable the use of handheld digital radios in the airport terminal.

A department spokesman said all Government Flying Services helicopters had been equipped with new digital radios and testing would be conducted as soon as possible.

But he said there was no need to install a signal amplifier in the Legco building, as there are signal repeaters and portable ones on fire engines.

An MTR Corp spokesman said the radio system upgrade in its tunnels would take time as the work can only be done outside service hours.

Lawmaker To said he suspected the digital radio system might have been hastily introduced to prevent reporters from listening in to firefighters' communications, but the department denied this claim.

On the analogue radio system, the media were able to listen to real-time information on breaking news. But under the digital system, the media have to rely on the fire services department to release information on breaking news every 30 minutes.

In 2008, two firefighters died at a blaze at Cornwall Court, Mong Kok, due to their inadequate radio system.