The Justice Department is freezing efforts to create a single radio network that allows its various agencies to talk to each other — a key recommendation of the Sept. 11 panel.
Anticipating budget cuts, Justice officials last week issued stop-work orders on the Integrated Wireless Network. The work stoppage will require dropping a competitive procurement contract for a no-bid, sole-source one, officials said.
“Given the current budget environment, we are replanning how best to continue our wireless modernization effort,” said Justice spokeswoman Gina Talamona.
Currently, each federal law enforcement agency uses its own radio system, sometimes making it difficult for officers from different agencies to talk to each other. Agents assigned to task forces sometimes are forced to carry a radio for each agency in the joint operation, a problem highlighted by the Sept. 11 commission and the inquiries into the botched response to Hurricane Katrina.
“The current replan … focuses on the upgrade of ‘legacy’ systems we have, rather than a whole-scale replacement,” Ms. Talamona said.
But those radio systems, some of which are 20 years old, cannot meet agents’ needs, said John Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the nation’s largest professional association for federal agents, which represents more than 25,000 of them in 65 agencies.
“If you’re communicating with two tin cans on a piece of string, and you rinse the cans and clean the string, you’re still stuck with an outdated, inferior communications system,” Mr. Adler told The Washington Times.
He said law enforcement spending should be counted in the security part of the federal budget that many lawmakers want to see placed off limits for cuts.
“If law enforcement spending were not included in the non-security, discretionary part of the budget [which has been targeted for cuts], we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Mr. Adler said, “because the system would be funded.”
Lawmakers cut $108 million — more than half of the department’s request — from the current-year funding for wireless tactical communications in the budget deal reached last week, according to congressional appropriations documents.
The cut leaves the department with $102 million, which Ms. Talamona said would be enough to finish the transition to the new IWN system in the National Capital Region, where it was rolled out earlier this year.
But “given future funding uncertainty” the department was ceasing design work on the next stage, in Maryland and Virginia, and would not begin planning for the third stage rollout in the Midwest, which had been slated for 2012, she said.
IWN was initiated in response to the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission that law enforcement agencies be able to talk to each other during a crisis.
The network will provide a single system that four Justice Department agencies (the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), as well as the Treasury Department and the U.S. Park Police will use in the Washington area.
Ms. Talamona said that handheld radios are a critical safety tool for law enforcers and that the Justice Department is doing its best to focus modernization efforts on “the geographical areas of greatest need, like Chicago and Detroit.”
The move away from IWN also means that Justice will abandon the contracting system it had used to buy the network, under which different companies could bid for different parts of the work.
Instead, as part of its upgrade to current systems, the department will purchase 6,900 new handheld radios and 3,700 vehicle sets using a sole-source, no-bid contract with Motorola, Ms. Talamona said.
She said Motorola is the only manufacturer of radios that can operate securely on analog systems, like those used by most state and local law enforcement, and digital systems, like those used by federal agencies.
“Accordingly, the department purchased radios, using an existing sole-source contract with Motorola, justified for these reasons,” she said.
She added that as state and local agencies begin to upgrade to digital systems, “there will be increased opportunity for other vendors to participate.”