Twelve-year, $430 million effort fails to get DHS radio users on the same frequency

Only one employee tested knew how to tune into the channel.

The Homeland Security Department spent $430 million on a fruitless plan to enable radio users departmentwide to communicate on the same frequency, according to a new audit released Tuesday by an internal watchdog.

Of 479 radio users the DHS inspector general tested, only one knew how to tune into the common channel, the report stated. Personnel either were unaware the channel existed, could not find it, or switched to an outdated channel inherited from the Treasury Department.

“Personnel do not have interoperable communications that they can rely on during daily operations, planned events and emergencies,” acting IG Charles K. Edwards wrote in the report.

About 123,000 employees use the handheld and mobile radios. Homeland Security this spring shelled out  $3 billion for new tactical communications to serve the entire department, along with the White House and the Interior Department.

The root of the disconnect, according to the report, is top department leaders have provided little guidance and no enforcement to ensure personnel use the channel. The shift to a single frequency began when the department formed in 2003.

“Components independently developed and managed their own radio programs with no formal coordination from DHS,” and as a result, “internal interoperability was not a priority for DHS components,” Edwards reported.

The department rejected the IG’s recommendation that leaders create an office with the power to ensure users across agencies can communicate with each other. In an undated response to a draft report, DHS officials explained they already have such an entity overseeing interoperability, called the Joint Wireless Program Management Office.

“The department learned from the weaknesses of the initial management efforts and believes that it has established a governing structure empowered with the authority and responsibilities to ensure the goals are achieved,” wrote Jim Crumpacker, DHS director of the IG liaison office. The head of the joint office reports directly to the DHS chief information officer, he added.

The inspector general replied that the office is toothless.

“The structure, based upon cooperation and not authority, is the same management approach that proved ineffective in the past,” Edwards wrote. “The department has a high probability of repeating past mistakes.”

He added the office relies on voluntary participation, through memorandums of understanding with agency representatives that are tailored to meet the agencies’ desired level of involvement.

Crumpacker wrote that DHS agencies contribute resources in accordance with “an organizationally specific” MOA, and while some of the agreements are not complete, “the requisite structure has been established with the authority to execute DHS’ wireless communications solutions.”

Discuss the future of Federal IT with experts, innovators and your peers on Dec. 3 in Washington at Nextgov Prime, the defining event in the federal technology landscape. Learn more at nextgov.com/prime.

(Image via Rat007/Shutterstock.com)

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