One of the difficulties that first responders during the Sept. 11 attacks faced was problematic communication, including radios that didn't allow different agencies to speak with one another.
It would seem like a simple problem to solve, and in the years since, the Department of Homeland Security has spent heavily, equipping agencies with new radios and special reserved frequencies for them to operate on.
But a government watchdog report out Monday concludes that almost 15 years and some $430 million later, the problems persist.
Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General first visited the issue in November 2012, finding that "less than one-fourth of 1 percent of DHS radio users tested could access and use the specified common channel to communicate."
It recommended specific steps for Homeland Security to improve communications, including creating "a structure with the necessary authority to ensure that the components achieve interoperability." It also recommended the department set common interoperability standards for the more than 20 different agencies that fall within the department.
But more than two years after those recommendations, the Office of Inspector General says Homeland Security still hasn't complied.
"We are disappointed to see the lack of progress in this area. DHS
leadership must prioritize effective interoperable communications, a
fundamental aspect of the homeland security mission," said Inspector
General John Roth.
The inspector general's office cited recent tests it conducted, with disappointing results:
"To determine whether radio interoperability had improved since our November 2012 report, we tested 17 radio users from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to see if they could access and use the DHS common channel to communicate. Test results demonstrated little improvement.
Although seven radio users from ICE and USCG were able to successfully communicate using the specified common channel, eight users from CBP were still not aware that a DHS common channel existed. Additionally, a radio user from ICE and another from CBP knew about the common channel, but could not access it."
The Office of the Inspector General also tried to test radio interoperability at the Transportation Security Administration, but the location it visited didn't have the common channel programmed on any of its radios. Asked how the TSA communicated with Customs and Border Protection at the site (presumably an international airport), the manager interviewed said transportation security officers didn't need to communicate with other Homeland Security components by radio, and used phones or visited in person.
But the report notes:
"Nonetheless, when asked if he had any concerns
about radio interoperability, he noted an incident where all airports in the area lost Internet and telephone services and had to use the Military Auxiliary Radios Systems to communicate with other components and law enforcement agencies. The manager also mentioned that TSA radios could not communicate with other components' radios during the Boston Marathon bombings. Having
the DHS common channel configured would have been useful at those times."
Another worry: An official told the inspector general's office that "radio equipment is outdated and not compatible with the radio system used by state agencies."
DHS spokesman Justin Greenberg issued this statement in response to the OIG's report:
"Since the formation of DHS, the Department has worked to integrate multiple, existing radio communications systems from the legacy organizations that were brought together. While these systems often require significant technological improvements, the Department concurs with the Inspector General's recommendation and is developing essential policies and procedures to help ensure that Department-wide tactical radio communications are standardized and functional across DHS components."