New York Subway Communications System

In New York City, police officers working underground in the city’s extensive rapid transit subway system were routinely unable to communicate with officers working the streets above ground. The problem occurred because the communication systems they used were incompatible. Not that this was a new problem to law enforcement and emergency organizations in New York City.  As far back as 1987 and in a New York Times letter to the editor, one reader wrote that there was a lack of reliable and compatible communication system for transit police. The transit police, he maintains, not only had difficulty in communicating with each other but they could not communicate with other agencies during emergency situations.  Finally, the writer continued, “the problem is so bad that transit police officers in aboveground locations are equipped with New York City Police Department radios, which are not compatible with transit police radios.

One transit officer said that street cops could be in hot pursuit of a suspect but police below ground would have no idea of what was happening.  Quite aware of this shortcoming, suspects would duck into the nearest subway entrance and disappear into the underground crowd.

This inability to communicate between levels as well as the inability to communicate between other law enforcement agencies and the fire department proved particularly tragic when on 9/11 police were unable to warn firefighters that the twin towers were in jeopardy of collapsing.  

A US Department of Transportation report on the communications breakdown on 9/11 expresses it this way:

The FDNY learned hard lessons about its audio communications abilities. Their mobile radio system temporarily lost the ability to transmit after the first tower collapsed. The incompatibility of their mobile communications system with that of the Police Department also prevented the agencies from communicating directly with each other. The critical issue of interoperability is being addressed by changing over from VHF to UHF, which will give the FDNY the ability to communicate within its own agency as well as with the NYPD and the Emergency Medical Services (EMS).

As early as the 1990s the police department developed preliminary plans to solve this problem.  Then in 1999 a contract was signed with two firms to develop a new communication system. The goal of the project was very simple; to develop a network that would make it possible for law enforcement personnel to talk across department and organizational lines.  Project completion would be 2004, at a cost of $115 million. 

Creating an interoperable system to bridge above ground and below ground areas would be a problem that could be solved by sharing transmission and reception frequencies. Police officers patrolling the subways relied on a radio system that propagates signals using the VHF (Very High Frequency) spectrum while those above ground used a system that used UHF (Ultra high Frequency) spectrum. The reason that two systems were used dates back to 1995 when the police who patrolled the above ground areas of the transit system belonged to a different organization than those who were assigned underground.  One part of the problem could be solved by sharing the same frequency.

In addition to this problem, and one that would prove to be much more challenging, was the problem of propagating signals from underground sources.  Underground propagation requires underground antennas, many of which were already in place in the subway system, but a substantial run of these antennae, about 72 miles or one-fifth of the system, were old and could not carry the signals.  When radio signals emerge from or sent to underground sources they must pass through a maze of cables, grates and openings that threaten to add static or make the signal unintelligible altogether.  For this and other reasons related to the ability to propagate underground signals, there were concerns expressed from the beginning that interference problems could prevent the system form working as needed.

As early as 2001 questions wer4e raised about the interference problem that could jeopardize the ability of the systems to work together, but pressures to do something prevented a more thorough analysis of this potential problem. Rather than return to the design stage and address this problem, the authorized subcontractors got started building amplifiers that through brute force would hopefully overcome any propagation problems.

Engineers working for the MTA, however, were skeptical that the interference problem would resolved using current analog technology and began to consider new digital technology that would be far less prone to this problem. 

Then in 2004 the Police Department made it known to designers that they would not use the system unless the interference problem was solved. In 2005, however, they were urged to use the system and that modifications would come later. Then the New York Police Department (NYPD) made it clear that they would not use the system unless its problems could be resolved. But the Police Department maintained their ground and when final testing of the system commenced it became clear that the system would not work.

Now, left with an unreliable system, these is considerable squabbling about who will pay for the fixes. At best the system would be turned on four years behind schedule.

The project was completed in October of 2007 after spending $140 million, but during trial runs communication was plagued with …  interference.  As a result implementation was halted.  Fixing the problem was expected to increase the cost of the project to $210 million, an 83 percent budget overrun.

The failure of this project raises many questions and perhaps the most important is how project managers could ignore the warnings of experts who predicted that the project could fail. The answer is that this and many other projects fall prey to enthusiastic sponsors who are unrealistically optimistic, political pressures, bureaucratic roadblocks, overly ambitious scope, and underestimating the complexity of replacing legacy systems.

What cannot be ignored is that the problem that this project was to solve was longstanding and that the organizations involved in creating solutions were mature bureaucracies.

What is also very interesting to consider is that management research has led us to believe that management changes are more likely to be successful when motivated by a crisis. Here the crisis of 9/11 certainly propelled police officials to espouse their cooperation but when it came time to address problems related to turf, they preferred instead to protect their own organizations.

Perhaps in mature bureaucracies there is tendency to talk about killer solutions and as a result propose projects with great scope in which both the technical and human resource issues will be underestimated and those championing the project will be too optimistic.  If bureaucratic organizations propose large changes that make up for years of neglect, there can be expected to be significant resistance to change, problems with understanding and implementing technology, and ambitious plans that lead to unreasonable scope statements. But most important when significant changes are proposed, the bureaucracy itself must be the first project. Someone must ask why these problems have occurred in the past and what is there different about the current organization that is likely to support the changes that are necessary to succeed in a major change project?

Scope is relative. Designing a new communication system in a new subway, is quite different from designing a system in old subway.  It is a difference that is quite familiar to anyone who has tried to renovate an old house.  Yet the inclination in both cases may be to minimize the difference before the project is begun.

Second, whenever problems cross major organizational and political boundaries, the collaboration necessary to succeed in meeting project objectives may be very difficult to achieve.