- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 20, 2015

Homeland Security still allows local police and fire departments to spend billions of tax dollars on faulty communications equipment that isn’t “interoperable,” meaning agencies can’t easily communicate with each other, hampering emergency response, the department’s inspector general said in a report released Thursday.

The problem lingers nearly 14 years after it was highlighted during the response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which saw agencies using different equipment and unable to coordinate.

Poor radio equipment has slowed emergency units’ response to critical situations in recent years, according to the report.

During the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing incident, some SWAT teams experienced problems trying to communicate because they were using radios that did not have required interoperable channels programmed, investigators found.

Fire and rescue teams were slowed in their response to heavy smoke inside a tunnel of the D.C. Metro in January. Fire Department communications worked sporadically, and rescue teams had to use cellular phones to coordinate efforts, according to the report. One woman died from smoke inhalation, and more than 80 passengers were hospitalized.

Congress and the Bush and Obama administrations have tried to help solve the issue, pressuring local agencies to buy equipment that can communicate, but the inspector general found Homeland Security doled out more than $5 billion in grant money over the last few years without proper oversight to ensure the purchased equipment was interoperable.

In the report, Inspector General John Roth said that “ensuring interoperable communications is a vital aspect of the homeland security mission.”

Tax advocates are appalled by the report, saying it highlights a culture of laziness when it comes to safety and first response as well as a disdain for Americans’ tax dollars.

“The entire rationale behind the formation of the Department of Homeland Security was to create seamless information flows between government agencies,” said Richard Manning, president of the spending-watchdog group Americans for Limited Government. “The news that 14 years after 9/11, DHS continues to dole out money so local law enforcement can buy equipment that isn’t interoperable defeats the agency’s very purpose. This failure is unbelievable even for this administration.”

For failing to manage federal grants to improve communications between emergency responders, endangering Americans’ tax dollars and lives, DHS wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by The Washington Times highlighting the most egregious examples of wasteful federal spending.

“Taxpayers have a right to expect that their money is going to go to radio equipment that actually works and can talk with other radio equipment purchased with federal funds. It’s such a ridiculous oversight by DHS to not require interoperability in radio purchases, but in the event of a catastrophe, it can be extremely costly both in terms of lives and response times,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Members of Congress had requested the inspector general’s review after McClatchy news reported that Motorola was winning contracts for federal grant money while still offering substandard equipment. The lawmakers accused the company of “questionable practices” and said taxpayers’ money was being wasted, with Motorola charging as much as $7,500 for radios that could be bought far cheaper.

Motorola called the McClatchy articles “innuendo.”

Homeland Security officials said they will rewrite grant guidance to ensure that any federal money be spent on communications equipment that is interoperable.

In a letter included in the report, Jim H. Crumpacker, Homeland Security’s point man for responding to the IG, said the agency is committed to “strengthening linkages between planning, programming, budgeting and execution processes with its many partners to keep America safe, secure and resilient.”

During the investigation, both FEMA and the Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) signed an agreement pledging to take steps to ensure grant guidance for interoperability is coordinated and consistent with the goals and recommendations in the National Emergency Communications Plan.

Mr. Ellis told The Times that mismanagement of such grants is common and can lead to disaster if left unchecked.

“Federal assistance subsidies should always come with strings attached that ensure that taxpayer funds are being spent effectively and wisely. We cannot afford to have first responders not be able to talk to one another, and DHS should require interoperability in all radio purchases,” he said.

Mr. Roth concluded the report saying DHS grants without clear guidance requiring interoperability jeopardize the safety of first responders.

“Without effective emergency communications equipment, the lives of first responders and those whom they are trying to assist may be at risk,” Mr. Roth said.

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