The Reagan-era radio system used by the Capitol Police is moving a step closer to a long-overdue overhaul as a team of officers begins testing the modern radio system Congress has invested $105 million into building.
It’s been 12 years since 9/11 exposed the communications problems in the current radio system, including dead spots around congressional buildings and non-encrypted channels that can be monitored via cheap police scanners. The scope, scale and cost of the overhaul have continued to mount ever since.
“While I’m pleased that the Capitol Police radios are finally in the testing phase, the continued delays in schedule have been unacceptable,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., ranking member of the Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, in a statement. “Appropriations have been provided dating back to my time as Chair of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee in 2007. Six years later, and we’re still only in the testing phase when officers should already have new radios.”
Wasserman Schultz has aggressively pressed the Capitol Police for a schedule, confronting Chief Kim C. Dine earlier this year for failing to meet a spring 2012 due date projected by former Chief Phillip Morse.
“I am asking you a direct question,” Wasserman Schultz said then. “Is it likely, do you think, we are going to go beyond the fall of 2013?”
At the time, she received no answer.
Nov. 11 is the latest addition to the implementation timeline.
By then, a small crew of engineers aims to access every interior space of the Capitol, including each room within House office suites, to test the new radio system, according to a memo from House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving. Sources familiar with the project say Senate office buildings and pedestrian and subway tunnels connecting the Capitol complex will also be tested for compatibility with the new 14-channel encrypted digital radio system.
Testing is projected to take less than one minute per room and is being performed during normal business hours to accurately account for interference that would could pose problems when the system is implemented.
The tests are a “routine part of the project plan and a necessary process to move forward with implementation of the new system,” department spokeswoman Lt. Kimberly Schneider said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.
When asked when police will begin to reap the benefits of the long-delayed, multiyear modernization, Schneider did not have an estimate. The department is also silent on the next step in the implementation process.
“While we realize that there have been many projections on the completion date for this complex project, our top priority has been focused on doing it right, so that we can ensure that our officers have a fully functional, modernized critical life safety tool needed to perform our security mission,” Schneider said.
As defenders of the Capitol complex, most of the department’s coverage area is indoors. Unlike a municipal police force that spends most of its time patrolling the streets, many officers are stationed in and around historic buildings.
Originally, the radio modernization was projected to cost $35 million.
When infrastructure costs were taken into account, including off-site antennas and construction of a dispatch center, that figure increased.
Dine gave more detail on the capabilities of the new system in a statement Wednesday.
“The new radio system will replace the current system which is an analog, non-encrypted, outdoor VHF radio system, which provides indoor coverage. The new system is a 14 channel, encrypted, APCO-25 standard, digital trunk VHF system, which provides redundant capabilities. The new system is a complex, highly engineered system designed with both an indoor and outdoor antenna system. The referenced APCO-25 standard facilitates post 9/11 interoperability requirements. The new radio system, in addition to the radio technology itself, has a significant supporting infrastructure footprint designed for our specific project requirements.”
Achieving such a complex project has required the department to partner with numerous entities, he added, including the architect of the Capitol and the Naval Air Systems Command, as well as the Government Accountability Office.
Dine has requested an additional $2.8 million in fiscal 2014 to cover annual operations and maintenance of the new radio system.