VA Can’t Locate $700K Worth of Satellite Phones

Downed power lines slump over a road in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Reserve, La.

Downed power lines slump over a road in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Reserve, La. Matt Slocum/AP

For decades, Veterans Affairs employees have had trouble finding emergency communications devices when they’re needed most.

The Veterans Affairs Department is missing more than $700,000 in emergency satellite phone devices while a bureaucratic quagmire prevents IT officials from fixing the situation.

When disasters strike, VA employees move swiftly to ensure the safety of veterans in their care, as well as the communities in which they operate. Part of their preparations included reaching out to the Office of Emergency Management to secure satellite phones for use when the terrestrial networks go down.

This year was no different. As the 2021 hurricane season approached, VA staff began preparing.

But of the 549 Iridium satellite phones owned by VA, the agency can only account for 110. And a mess of bureaucratic finger pointing has prevented VA staff from clearing the missing devices from their inventories and restocking the necessary equipment.

“Where are the phones? We don’t know,” a VA IT official told Nextgov on the condition of anonymity, as they were not cleared to speak with the press. And while VA leadership has since established policies that would prevent this from happening again, the problem remains in limbo, with no one willing to take the responsibility required to move on.

“But nobody wants to put their name on it,” they said.

Without that closure—either finding the phones or acknowledging that they are lost—OEM can’t move forward.

“And, since no one wants to take responsibility, we don’t have our communication tools,” the IT official added.

The current set of events began in September 2019, when then-VA Chief Information Officer James Gfrerer ordered all emergency communications equipment consolidated under OEM. That would include the satellite phones, as well as satellite services and high-frequency radios.

At that time, the phones were kept by the Office of Operations, Security and Preparedness, which manages the security of VA facilities, including ensuring personnel have secure communications devices. An inventory list—obtained by Nextgov—shows the office owned 549 Iridium satellite phone devices. However, when OEM went to take over management of the assets, OSP officials were unable to physically locate 439 of those devices.

That list was checked annually as part of a partial inventory, during which a randomized 10% of the list was verified. But the old process only included checking the documentation associated with the device, not locating the device physically.

“They would go through their stack of paperwork and say, ‘If I have the paperwork associated with that phone then that counts as inventory,’” the official said. “They inventoried the paperwork, not the phone.”

That process has since been updated but that doesn’t help locate the missing phones. At a cost of $1,615 per phone, the total missing inventory is valued at over $708,985.

Officials have been trying to locate the missing phones since December, with 110 located, and 52 of those transferred to OEM, according to a May 2021 white paper—an internal document obtained by Nextgov. But OEM officials are declining to take ownership of the full inventory list until the missing phones are either found or written off as a loss.

The likelihood that the phones will be found and fully accounted for is slim, the official said.

Before the missing phones can be cleared, someone within the VA must conduct a Report of Survey—an official report that documents what was lost, what went wrong and who might be liable.

Emails obtained by Nextgov show OIT divisions tasked with this investigation continue to look for the phones but have yet to conduct a Report of Survey.

VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs declined multiple interview requests but told Nextgov in a statement: "VA’s Office of Operations, Security and Preparedness is working with VA’s Office of Information and Technology to properly account for satellite phones, remediate the situation and improve inventory and management processes of these phones for the future. Some of the phones have been accounted for and we continue to investigate this matter."

While no one is certain where those phones are today, the IT official said there is little to no chance they were stolen or otherwise misappropriated.

“They’re like a cellphone: you need a SIM card to make them work,” the official said. If the phones are turned on at any point, they would ping Iridium’s network, which has not happened, the official said.

Without a clear chain of possession, a device would be given to an employee who then, maybe, puts it in a drawer until needed. But when that person changes roles or leaves government altogether, the devices get lost in the shuffle.

The lack of awareness of where these phones are creates other problems for the OEM team, which tests all of its equipment monthly to ensure it is ready to go in case of an emergency. Even if the phones are with the right people who could use them in an emergency situation, without a way to track them the central office has no means of ensuring those devices will be working properly when needed.

The official said this is not a rampant problem within VA IT—laptops and other devices don’t regularly go missing, for instance.

“They learned their lesson a long time ago about tracking equipment. They’re pretty good at it now,” they said. “But this is something that nobody wanted to dive into—one of those things you don’t want to touch because it’s so big.”

But the lack of a reliable means for tracking these phones has been causing problems for years—even decades.

While the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 were not directed at VA facilities or personnel, the agency—like most others—moved quickly to support the federal and local response. That day was the first time the official noticed this issue.

“We were looking for satellite phones,” they told Nextgov. “We were calling … trying to get the satellite phones … but we couldn’t get any. Couldn’t even get a list of who had them.”

That scenario played out when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017 and again last month when Ida crashed into the Gulf Coast, during which, “satellite phone availability … was difficult at best,” the IT manager said. They “begged and borrowed” to meet the needs of those on the ground.

“It’s been a mismanaged program for many, many years,” the official said.

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