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Interoperability Isn't Only Reason For Capitol Police Radio Upgrade

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Collins requested more information about the Oct. 3 incident at the Capitol after some news outlets reported that interoperability issues prevented the Secret Service from communicating with Capitol Police.

In the wake of the Oct. 3 incident on the Capitol campus, NBC News reported an alleged failure in radio interoperability that left Secret Service officers unable to communicate with Capitol Police. A Metropolitan Police Department investigation into the incident is ongoing.

Citing those concerns, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, requested more information on interoperability issues from the departments involved.

“If these communication failures are in fact accurate, it is extremely concerning that this problem still has not been resolved after years of experience with such situations, as well as billions of dollars spent to resolve our weaknesses in interoperable communications systems,” the former chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee wrote in an Oct. 8 letter to Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer.

Gainer responded on Oct. 28 in a letter obtained by CQ Roll Call, saying early reports concerning communications between agencies “neither accurately reported the state of communications during the incident, nor my complete comments regarding interoperability.”

Although they operate on different frequencies, Capitol Police can and do communicate with officers from the Secret Service and MPD, he explained. Though the forces operate on different frequencies, with varying encryption capabilities and signal types, they can be linked through agency command or communication centers.

Capitol Police are part of the Police Mutual Aid Radio System, or P-MARS, which includes nearly 30 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies across the National Capital Region. The department has two post-9/11 interoperable channels.

“Implementation of a decision to link works best in preplanned events or in consequence management,” Gainer wrote. “As a rule, this is not the strategy employed in kinetic, rapidly developing police operations such as the incident on October 3rd. The time when communications interoperability is least effective is during the initial response stage of a spontaneous or unplanned event.”

Radio interoperability, which will be improved with the modernized radio system, is distinct from the operational interaction that is essential to mutual aid efforts, Gainer explained. For tactical street-level police actions, such as those with an active shooter, joint policy development, training and command center communication are the keys to seamless coordination.

“The new system will enhance that electronic inter operability, our intra-operability on the hill will make quantum leaps,” Gainer wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call. “Cross pollenization of policy, procedures, training and practice will strengthen the ability to work together in high stress, unscheduled live on the street.”

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