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15 Years After 9/11, Many Feds Still Lack A Common Radio Channel

Department of Homeland Security officers may be unable to communicate with each other in the event of another 9/11- or Boston bombing-style terrorist attack, despite several warnings and a $430 million investment, a government watchdog said Monday.

“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,” since the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., John Roth, the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, reported.

“The inability to communicate during an emergency presents serious risks to the health and safety of the public,” the IG said in the report.

The watchdog previously warned Homeland Security – the sprawling cabinet-level department created in the wake of 9/11 – of the issue nearly three years ago.

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

As an example, the IG’s investigators tested 17 radio users from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Coast Guard. Only 14 users were able to communicate through the common channel, while eight from Border Protection didn’t even know of its existence.

Roth’s investigators planned to test the communication at the TSA, but the common channel wasn’t programmed on any of that agency’s radios. A TSA manager told the inspector general that they “do not have the need to communicate with other DHS components by radio” and would instead connect “over the phone or in person.”

The manager, however, “mentioned that TSA radios could not communicate with other components’ radios during the Boston Marathon bombings,” the report said. Also, the manager admitted that officers had to rely on radios during an incident that cut Internet and phone services from all nearby airports.

A November 2012 inspector general report resulted in “two recommendations to the department to improve interoperable communications so that the $430 million worth of radios purchased could be used effectively,” according to Roth.

Less than a quarter of 1 percent of the Homeland Security officers investigators tested could use the common channel and only 20 percent of the radios reviewed were programed correctly.

Homeland Security responded by drafting a plan that “establishes a roadmap to improve tactical communications,” Monday’s report said.

That draft was completed in February 2014, but the plan still hasn’t been approved and officials couldn’t say when it will be. Homeland Security officials blamed the “lengthy review process and delays caused by changes in leadership.”

Homeland Security officials also didn’t make the channel a mandatory part of its components communications.

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