DHS Interoperable Communications Still Lacking Decade after 9/11 Commission

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Originally published at Homeland Security Today by Amanda Vicinanzo on 6/9/15

Nearly 15 years after the tragic September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, problems with interoperable communications continue to plague the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), according to a DHS Inspector General (OIG) audit report.

“In other words, nearly a decade after the 9/11 Commission highlighted the problem with interoperable communications, DHS components could not talk to each other using about $430 million worth of radios purchased,” said DHS Inspector General John Roth, whose office just concluded a verification review of its 2012 audit of DHS’s oversight of interoperable communications.

Photo of first responders using payphone on 9/11
Ron Agam Getty Images

In the 2012 audit report, DHS’ Oversight of Interoperable Communications, the IG’s review of progress on intra-agency communications during an emergency, such as a terrorist event, found less than 0.25 percent of the 479 radio users could access and communicate via that specified common channel.

Moreover, of the 382 radios tested, only 20 percent contained all the correct program settings for the common channel.

The IG determined the reason behind the communications failure was lack of an effective governing structure with the authority and responsibility to ensure DHS achieved department-wide interoperable radio communications.

Now more than two years later, the IG found, DHS still hasn’t complied with the recommendations of the initial 2012 audit. Although DHS has taken some corrective actions to standardize department-wide radio activities, plans have not been finalized and DHS could not provide a timetable for finalization of the plans.

Furthermore, some component officials raised concerns about equipment compatibility and the lack of department-wide training. One official said the radio equipment is outdated and incompatible with the systems used by state agencies. Another official said radio users were not being trained to access the DHS common channel.

The Inspector General also tried to test radio interoperability at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), but the location it visited did not have the common channel programmed on any of its radios. A TSA manager told the IG that TSA security officers do not have a need to communicate with DHS components by radio. At the same time, though, the TSA manager also said a DHS common channel would be useful. During the Boston Marathon bombings, for instance, TSA radios could not communicate with other components’ radios.

According to the IG, until DHS performs the corrective actions listed in the November 2012 report, the agency will continue to lack reliable interoperable communications for emergencies and daily operations.

“We are disappointed to see the lack of progress in this area,” said Roth. “DHS leadership must prioritize effective interoperable communications, a fundamental aspect of the homeland security mission.”

A number of events over the past decade—from the 9/11 attacks to Hurricane Katrina and, most recently, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings—have revealed the importance of keeping pace with the ever-evolving emergency communications landscape.

Responding to the IG’s latest findings, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, and Rep. Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-NJ), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications, said in a joint statement that, “Almost 14 years after 9/11, it is incredibly disturbing that the Department of Homeland Security still lacks the proper technology and procedures to allow its frontline workers to communicate properly with each other.”

The lawmakers said, “The Department must stop dragging its feet on creating and implementing a communications interoperability plan. This must be a top priority. We urge the Senate to swiftly pass HR 615 so we can put the department on a path forward to fix this long-standing problem. Fully functioning interoperable communications is a public safety necessity and is critical for DHS to properly fulfill its mission.”

In response to the November 2012 IG report, the House last year passed HR 615, introduced by Payne to amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002, to make the DHS Under Secretary for Management responsible for policies and directives to achieve and maintain interoperable communications among DHS components. The legislation was passed by the House.

“I was shocked to learn how much money had been spent on interoperable communications since the September 11th terrorist attacks and still little to show for it,” Payne said during a floor debate.

Last month, Homeland Security Today reported Payne introduced further legislation that would help enable state and local first responders to achieve interoperable emergency communications. The Statewide Interoperable Communications Enhancement Act of 2015 would ensure states maintain the progress that has been made toward achieving interoperability by requiring states to have a Statewide Interoperable Communications, or to delegate activities related to achieving interoperability to other individuals.

“The inability of first responders to effectively communicate with one another during emergencies is a very real problem that undermines the safety of our communities,” Payne said when he introduced his new legislation.

Despite these initiatives, as well as the understanding of the serious risks posed to the health and safety of the public by the inability to effectively communicate during an emergency, DHS continues to lack reliable interoperable communications.

“Unfortunately, DHS components’ inability to communicate effectively on the DHS common channel persists,” the IG’s audit report stated. “To better fulfill its mission and unify its efforts, DHS must prioritize interoperable communications and expedite the implementation of the recommended corrective actions in our report.”

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