ATLANTA - Channel 2 Action News investigated allegations that Georgia Department of Transportation radios were not working in some areas, putting the safety of many people at risk.
Channel 2's Michael Seiden looked into a tip that HERO (Highway Emergency Response Operators) had trouble using its radios on almost half of metro Atlanta interstates.
HERO workers have a dangerous job. They help crash victims and stranded drivers on busy interstates. Seiden learned of one serious accident involving a HERO trainee that prompted a dire warning about the radios.
Channel 2 Action News got police body camera video that shows a HERO operator pushing a stalled car off a trainee on the Downtown Connector at University Avenue in March.
It shows the trainee on a stretcher and being loaded into an ambulance where he described how he got hurt.
"We was fixing and she was stopped. I was moving to direct traffic and he saw it. Next thing I know bam, I'm on my a**," said the trainee.
He suffered serious injuries. "My left hip, my lower back and my right leg," said the trainee.
Just hours later, HERO's assistant manager sent an urgent email to his boss. He linked concerns about the radios to the accident writing: "… this was a close call to our worst nightmare."
The email also states no one could hear the HERO operator on the radio calling for help. GDOT's own report shows an Atlanta police officer requested the ambulance.
"What I saw in that video was shocking and disturbing for them not to be able to call for assistance after an injury like that is scary…," said a GDOT worker who wanted his identity concealed. He first told Channel 2 Action News about the radio dead zones.
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But Scott Higley GDOT's director of communications, said, "Those claims are baseless." He said an investigation showed, "The equipment was functioning properly on the day of the incident."
Two days after the trainee's accident, a supervisor sent an email to his bosses, writing, "I wanted to express my disdain for the new radio system." He also wrote: "I will not put my guys' life out on the line with no reliable communications."
"The dead zones were rampant," said the unidentified GDOT worker. Channel 2 Action News filed an open records request in June and received dozens of emails about the radio problems.
They included parts of the Downtown Connector, Langford Parkway, sections of I-285, Buford Highway, parts of the Northwest Corridor Express Lanes, areas of I-575, and I-75 in Cobb County north of Chastain Road.
The unidentified GDOT worker said there were also dead zones on sections of I-85, parts of Georgia 400, and on U.S. 78 near Stone Mountain. "People have been struck by vehicles and been unable to call for help," said the GDOT worker.
He said the dead zones put all metro Atlanta drivers at risk. "When you have your average general public driving 70 miles an hour on the interstate there's no advance warning that when they come around that curve there's going to be a HERO unit… they can't stop in time and they strike a HERO unit," he said.
The GDOT worker said dozens of emails were sent about the radio dead zones for years, but the warnings fell on deaf ears. "They just didn't care," he said. That is until Channel 2 Action News got involved. "So, when Channel 2 started asking questions suddenly there was more urgency," he said.
But GDOT told us the agency quickly passed the complaints on to the radio company. "Any gaps and service areas were immediately in our experience addressed," Higley said.
In October 2019, GDOT gave the HERO operators' new radios. "The problems stopped when GDOT switched to a actual radio that's used by first responders across the metro," said the GDOT worker.
But GDOT told Channel 2 Action News the new radios are being used in addition to the old ones, which it said work just fine. "There are no ongoing concerns with quality or service or quality of equipment or its reliability," Higley said.
The GDOT worker said he wanted to talk because this is a matter of life and death. "If GDOT had not switched over the radio systems, we could potentially be talking about another HERO operator that had been killed in the line of duty," he said.
GDOT said it takes safety very seriously and gives its employees safe equipment and safety training.
The injured HERO trainee is recovering, but he has not returned to the job yet.
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