Why even walkie-talkies need systems management

Department taken to task for mishandling hundreds of thousands of radios and other components of its land mobile radio systems.

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To most efficiently manage operations, federal IT managers have long been told they must take a more holistic view of the computers, routers and other gear in their networks and see those devices as part of a larger picture. Now, a new report from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general's office argues the same approach should extend to DHS's aging land mobile radios and radio systems.

The IG report took the agency to task for woefully mishandling hundreds of thousands of radios and thousands of radio towers used daily on its 20 land mobile radio systems. In response, DHS told the IG it is improving its practices, including implementing a portfolio management approach for the radio systems.

DHS's rocky property management practices could also endanger its effort to upgrade the aging communications systems, which date from the late 1980s.

The department awarded a $3 billion strategic sourcing contract in March 2012 to acquire equipment and services to maintain, upgrade and modernize the legacy radio systems. As of September 2012, DHS had spent more than $33 million on the contract, but the report said sketchy inventory and procurement management practices could hobble that effort.

Without reliable department-wide inventory data or effective governance structures to guide decisions on investments in new systems, the report maintains, the agency cannot make sound investment decisions for radio equipment and supporting communications infrastructure. DHS acknowledged in its response to the IG report that it faced budget challenges in maintaining the system.

The report, issued Aug. 29, said DHS must make the jump from managing the legacy equipment as simple property to more comprehensive portfolio management methods -- or risk its investment in modernizing the systems.

The report said DHS oversight of 20 land mobile radio systems that provide primary communications capabilities for 120,000 frontline agents and officers at Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and others, is chaotic and inconsistent.

Component agencies have mislaid thousands of pieces of radio equipment, according to the report. In particular, the IG noted its analysis of CBP, ICE and Secret Service radio inventories at technical maintenance warehouses that showed millions of dollars worth of such equipment was not being used efficiently or effectively. It said an analysis of ICE inventory records showed 1,740 equipment items, valued at $6.6 million, listed as "in service," but the agency had actually been storing the items at its Technical Maintenance Facility in Largo, Md., for at least 17 months.

CBP inventory records, it said, showed 6,306 equipment items, valued at $21.5 million, were stored at the CBP's Hi-Tech maintenance facility in Orlando, Fla. for 16 months or longer. Of those items, the IG said 6,147 were recorded in the system as "active," giving a false impression that the equipment was being used. "As such, they may believe this equipment is not available for issuance to field users when in fact the items are sitting idle in a maintenance facility/warehouse," it said. At the time CBP was storing the radios, the report said, the Border Patrol's 20,143 agents  were short almost 900 portable radios.

The report said such inventory difficulties also slow inter-agency distribution of communications equipment. For instance, the Secret Service and ICE have 85 digital interface units, valued at $262,000 in total, that have never been placed in operation. CBP, auditors said, requires the same kind of equipment to fill a critical shortage in a nationwide radio system digital upgrade project. CBP has estimated it needs 50 of the digital interfaces, which are no longer sold by the manufacturer. ICE acquired  56 of the units in August 2010, but as of January 2013 they were still being stored at the technical maintenance facility warehouse in Largo. And Secret Service radio program officials have said they are holding their 29 interface units as spares.

To help solve the inventory and equipment-management tangle, the IG recommended that DHS establish a single, department-level point of accountability with the authority, resources and information to take a portfolio management approach for the radio communications program.

DHS said it is moving to get a broader, more holistic understanding of its land mobile radio operations, but faces another fundamental truth for federal agencies – flat spending and uncertain budget outlooks..

"DHS has made significant progress in developing a comprehensive understanding of its existing capability as well as component strategic planning for sustainment and replacement of radio communications systems," it said in response to the IG's recommendation. "However, successful planning is dependent on the availability of budget and other resources."

DHS said it could not set a completion date for creation of a portfolio management system without knowing how much money it will have available for the program through at least fiscal 2016.