Look closely, and you might notice the Capitol Police stationed around campus are sporting brand new radios on their belts.
More than 95 percent of the department’s forces this month traded in their Reagan-era radios for the latest Motorola technology, moving one step closer to full implementation of the long-overdue modernized radio system — a project that Congress has invested more than $100 million into, according to figures from the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee.
Every vehicle in the department’s fleet has been outfitted with the new technology, and the rest of the radios should be passed out to the nearly 1,800 sworn officers by the end of December, according to department spokesperson Lt. Kimberly Schneider.
Officers are still operating on the nonencrypted analog system for now as Naval Air Systems Command continues testing system capabilities on campus and throughout the 10-by-10-mile area around the Capitol. Once the testers are confident that the 14-channel, encrypted digital system is good to go, officers will switch over.
Transitioning from analog to digital channels will be as simple as “flipping a switch” on the radios, Schneider said.
That means that for now, areas such as the tunnels and the garages that have historically been subject to static and dead zones are still problematic.
“Just because somebody has a new radio doesn’t mean that fixes any of the reception problems at all,” Schneider said. “The new radios are capable of operating on a system upgrade, which is what we’re working to get to, where places like the Rayburn garage ... someplace off the Hill, will actually be able to get reception.”
An exact deadline for the switch is unclear and entirely dependent upon testing results. If there are areas that still need work, the radios will continue to use the analog system. Schneider emphasized that the system is a “critical life safety tool,” so it’s essential that it be fully functional.
Although the trend in technology is often that new devices get smaller with every model, the new radios are actually bigger than the old ones they replace. The new radios feature longer antennas and larger batteries than the outdated models notorious for their poor sound quality. They are designed to be continuously updated, as Motorola releases new software and security upgrades.
Schneider said they have markedly better sound quality and added that officers are already benefitting from new features they have been trained on, like a more accessible emergency identifier — the switch an officer would trigger in critical situations, such as “officer down.”
The extended battery life is also a big improvement. “Say a critical incident happens, like Sept. 11, you don’t have any time to go change out a battery,” Schneider said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.