Audit: Emergency communications project imperiled

A partnership between the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to create an interoperable wireless communications network for police and first responders has fallen apart and the project is imperiled, according to an audit released Monday.

The report from the Justice Department's inspector general office stated that despite more than six years of development and $195 million in funding, the Integrated Wireless Network project "does not appear to be on the path to providing the seamless interoperable communications system that was envisioned."

The two agencies now appear to be pursuing separate solutions, the report said. The Treasury department is also involved in the project, but has a smaller percentage of potential users.

Uncertain and disparate funding mechanisms, the fractured partnership and a poor governing structure are all causes for the project's high-risk status, the 89-page report stated. The audit found that Justice has been spending more money to maintain its existing communications system instead of developing new wireless solutions as part of the network project.

Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury agreed in 2004 to work together to develop the network, which could cost as much as $5 billion through 2021. It was expected to consist of a combination of land mobile radios, cell phones and walkie-talkie devices that would provide a secure nationwide wireless communications system.

The project would permit 81,000 federal law enforcement officers to communicate across agencies and with state and local partners. A majority of Justice's communications systems are considered obsolete because they are not supported by the manufacturer and spare parts are difficult to find, the IG noted.

Justice Inspector General Glenn Fine said a failure of the project would represent a significant missed opportunity to achieve needed communications interoperability among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

"We believe that the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury need to repair the partnership and work together more closely to develop an interoperable communications system," Fine said.

The project's failure could have significant consequences beyond the financial losses, the IG said. The safety of Justice law enforcement officers could be at stake because the department's legacy communications systems have limited functionality, diminished voice quality and weak security, the report stated.

It recommended that Justice reach an agreement with DHS and Treasury that accurately reflects each agency's commitment to the network project by explicitly stating the shared goals, responsibilities and funding requirements. If the agencies are unable to reach such an agreement, Justice officials concurred with the IG that Congress and the Office of Management and Budget should be notified that the joint network project is not viable.

Vance Hitch, Justice's chief information officer, said in a statement that the department believes the network program is the most appropriate strategy for providing agency agents with secure, reliable and interoperable communications in the field. He cited successful implementations of the network in Oregon and Washington state, but acknowledged that the audit raises valid concerns regarding funding and interagency partnership.

"We are working diligently to address these issues," Hitch said.

A DHS spokesman said the department agrees with the report's recommendations. Treasury officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Potential Integrated Wireless Network Users

Agency/Component Number of Potential Users
Percentage of Potential Users
Homeland Security
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service 66 0.08
U.S. Customs and Border Protection 16,250 19.94
Federal Emergency Management Agency 2,954 3.62
Federal Law Enforcement Training Center 600 0.74
Federal Protective Service 1,244 1.53
Immigration and Customs Enforcement 17,636 21.64
Transportation Security Administration 7,317 8.98
U.S. Secret Service 6,124 7.51
Homeland Security Total 52,191 64.04
Justice
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives 3,426 4.20
Federal Bureau of Investigation 12,751 15.64
Federal Bureau of Prisons 203 0.25
Drug Enforcement Administration 5,147 6.31
Office of the Inspector General 157 0.19
U.S. Marshals Service 3,089 3.79
Justice Total 24,773 30.38
Treasury
Bureau of Engraving and Printing 279 0.34
Internal Revenue Service 2,868 3.52
Internal Revenue Service Facilities 601 0.74
Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration 400 0.49
U.S. Mint 400 0.49
Treasury Total 4,548 5.58
Total Users 81,512 100.00
Source: Justice Management Division, Wireless Management Office, IWN Cost Model.
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