Wireless network excludes DHS

Agencies in D.C. area will be able to communicate on radio system

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Federal law enforcement officers from different agencies soon will be able to talk to each other on their own radios in the Washington area - but the Department of Homeland Security will not be a part of the new system.

The Justice Department this month is rolling out a new state-of-the-art interoperable tactical communications system in the national capital region. Called IWN, for Integrated Wireless Network, the new system addresses long-standing problems with existing legacy radio systems highlighted by communications failures on Sept. 11 and during Hurricane Katrina.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes some of the federal government’s largest law enforcement agencies - and which is responsible for leading national efforts on interoperable communications - will not be a part of it, however. Officials said DHS may participate in the system in other parts of the country, but not in the capital area, a decision made in 2007.

DHS was lacking two things that are essential in the federal government for big projects like IWN to succeed, according to a former federal official with close knowledge of the issue, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivities of his current employer.

“You need someone to be in charge and you need a place to put the money,” said the former official, “DHS had neither.”

The component agencies within DHS, like the Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), each have their own legacy communications systems, and there was no power center in the department that could force them to work together on modernization.

“The components all had their own equities, their own agenda … and the components were where the budget power was,” the former official concluded.

The Justice Department “was organized, funded and ready to go with IWN while DHS was still setting up,” added a congressional staffer familiar with the program. The two elements of DHS with responsibility for the issue, the Office of Interoperable Communications and the Office of Emergency Communications, “never had funding or authority to tell CBP or ICE how to organize their communications systems,” the staffer said.

A DHS official said the department was not part of IWN “because DHS users already have very mature and comprehensive systems installed in the National Capital Region,” and that IWN was designed to “integrate with everything that existed before it was built.”

Older communications systems are limited, according to a former federal official who noted 2008 congressional testimony Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) official James Craig, who said agents were “dumpster diving and going on eBay” for spare parts for “antiquated” radios.

Under legacy systems, federal law enforcement agencies operate seperate radio networks, requiring officers from different agencies to swap spare radios to communicate during raids or other major events.

Officers moving from one coverage area to another have to manually adjust the frequencies on their radios to ensure they can talk even to colleagues from their own agency.

IWN will provide a single system that four agencies inside the Justice Department (the FBI, DEA, ATF and the U.S. Marshals Service) and two outside it (the Treasury Department and the U.S. Park Police in the Interior Department) will use in the Washington area.

“We expect somewhere between 5[,000 and] 6,000 agents to eventually utilize” IWN in the Washington area, one official said, adding they would be replacing 45 transmission towers in the area with 15 new radio tower sites.

Nationwide, according to figures provided to Congress, the IWN system will have 1,800 to 2,000 towers, replacing more than 3,400 used by current systems. A total of 34,000 agents will eventually use the new system when it covers the whole country.

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