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DHS vows to cancel border project if technologies seem high risk

The Homeland Security Department plans to scrap a second attempt at a failed $1 billion virtual fence along the border with Mexico if officials are unable to find technologies already on the market that can operate in the rugged Southwest.

The department has not released a formal request for the work yet, but DHS' Customs and Border Protection informed contractors on Feb. 16 that the government is not willing to risk another money-losing venture. In a strongly worded update to an earlier draft, DHS officials said they want technology that is ready for activation right off the production line.

The new initiative involves deploying camera-studded towers along the U.S.-Mexico border capable of flagging illegal activity under the harsh conditions that foiled the project's predecessor, the Secure Border Initiative network.

This month's notice repeatedly stresses DHS does NOT -- in all caps -- want technologies that require engineering. "First and foremost, CBP is NOT interested in any kind of a system development," the update states. "CBP will cancel the solicitation rather than procure an ineffective or high-risk offering."

DHS first issued requirements for the job in a December 2011 draft request for proposals. The new notice describes the department's long-term approach for border technology and asks that vendors fashion their proposals to fit within that goal. It also pushes back the date for issuance of a final RFP from February to March 7.

The strategy, officials say, envisions this deployment as a test bed for potential improvements under future contracts: "Instant procurements of nondevelopmental systems will provide a sort of technology baseline, which CBP can use to assess the value of potential enhancements in the future," the document states. "CBP has not forsaken technology development and improvement . . . But technology development is NOT an interest for the systems which are the subject of this solicitation."

Unlike SBInet, the tower equipment used in the new project will not be networked, according to officials. Though, networking may be added as an enhancement if the initial operation works. "For now, the intent is to avoid 'overshooting' mission needs at all costs by delivering low-risk systems that can give immediate support to the overall border security mission," the notice states.

DHS officials abandoned SBInet in January 2011, after a yearlong review found the one-size-fits-all approach to standing up towers across the Southwest border would not work. Federal auditors and lawmakers had long faulted the management and design of the project, which began in 2006. Going forward, installations are expected to suit the weather and landscape of each surveillance location.

The new system must be able to function around-the-clock under all weather, terrain, vegetation and lighting conditions, solicitation documents state.

Officials say they are willing to consider contractors that cannot cater to every request, noting that the government recognizes "it is unlikely that there are existing (nondevelopmental) systems that meet ALL of its aspirations and desires." While there are a few must-haves, the department is looking for a proposal that offers the best mix of capabilities at a reasonable price.

The non-negotiable requirements include the system's ability to pinpoint an average-size adult within five miles at night, even if the view is 95 percent obstructed for up to three seconds. The equipment also must be able to endure sustained wind speeds of up to 10 miles per hour and gusts up to 15 miles per hour.

After SBInet suffered technical problems, officials realized that defense contractors and other industrial manufacturers probably could have provided similar -- yet functional -- products, officials say.

"Industry (often in response to military needs) appears to have many already available systems that could provide the type of capabilities offered by portions of SBInet, although they may not meet all of the aspirations for SBInet," the notice states.

Aspiring contractors are asked to demonstrate that their equipment can automatically see and track walking humans; people traveling on animals, and moving automobiles such as motorcycles and ATVs. The system also should be able to provide CBP personnel with live video of such observations so they can send responders.

The Obama administration is requesting $327 million for border security, fencing, infrastructure and technology in its 2013 budget proposal, less than the $400 million in appropriations that Congress recently granted for the remainder of the fiscal year.

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