By Mike Dunn

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The Philadelphia Fire Department begins testing new handheld Fire Department radios today, one key part of a sweeping overhaul of the city’s problem-plagued emergency communications system.

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison says the Fire Department testing will last four to six weeks.

“These are actually the portable handhelds that we are changing out. We are trying to see whether these will serve the fire department well. We believe they will, and today we are starting that testing going forward.”

Gillison says they are trying out a model designed specifically for firefighters, rather than the same model that police will be getting.

“These radios are actually built with noise cancellation. Also the knobs are little bit easier to manipulate with your fire gloves on. So, these radios are actually ready for the fire ground.”

Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, according to Gillison, made the case for the fire-specific radios.

“He knew it was going to cost a little bit more money in the short run, but that for the long run, the investment was well worth it for fire safety. And we did say, let’s do it, and let’s go forward.”

The current 800 mHz system came online 10 years ago and problems — particularly intermittent outages — cropped up from the start. The police and fire unions say those outages endangered lives of civilians and those in uniform.

It was two years ago that the Nutter Administration opted to rehire the original vendor, Motorola, to begin a $35 million overhaul. Officials said a top-to-bottom reworking was more cost-efficient than buying completely new system costing upwards of $100 million.

The upgrade includes all-new software and an overhaul of some of the hardware, including the underlying network that controls the system. A total of nearly 3,000 new handheld radios will be used for police, firefighters and prison guards. The city will also deploy portable repeater devices, allowing them to enhance the signal underground and in high-rises.

Gillison says the entire overhaul won’t be complete until spring of 2013.

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