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“Radio interoperability” has become a buzzword in the wake of recent shooting events that have shaken the Capitol Hill community.
But some of the concerns that Capitol Police radios are technically incapable of communicating with other departments have been overstated. And the long-overdue upgrade of the Capitol Police radio system now under way is more about keeping pace with current technology.
Emergencies requiring coordination between departments, such as the Sept. 16 shooting massacre at the Navy Yard and the Oct. 3 car chase that resulted in a Capitol lockdown and the shooting of Miriam Carey, have heightened interest in how law enforcement officers communicate during a crisis.
Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee grilled federal officials about the issue during a recent hearing on the Navy Yard shooting.
“According to several news reports, radios failed law enforcement once they got inside the facility that day,” Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said to a Department of Homeland Security official. “What’s been done or being done to ensure this problem doesn’t exist for Federal Protective Service or other federal partners? Is it — and I guess the follow-up, is there a radio interoperability issue that we need to be aware of?”
As members of Congress open their doors to the two-person teams now testing a new Capitol Police radio system, questions arise — how will new radios help secure the campus during a future crisis, and is the current system failing?
Former Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse gave Congress a frank assessment of the shortcomings in 2008.
“The system is over 20 years old, and we are experiencing failures on a regular basis. Those failures are the direct result of an aging equipment and infrastructure that have significantly exceeded their life expectancy,” Morse said. “Equipment manufacturers no longer make many of the critical parts used in the Capitol Police radio system, which substantially increases the risk that we will not be able to respond appropriately in an emergency or even during normal operating conditions.”
New radios will mean better signal strength, less static and the end of “dead zones” where officers are unable to communicate. Upgrading from the antique analog system to a modern setup with 14 encrypted digital channels will improve coverage in the Capitol’s marble-cased corridors and cement-lined tunnels, as well as in thick-walled office buildings, parking garages and a 10-by-10-mile outdoor grid. It will also prevent outsiders from being able to listen in on Capitol Police transmissions with cheap scanners.
“Greater interoperability, greater coverage, more capacity and improved voice quality,” are among the benefits listed by Lt. Kimberly Schneider, a spokeswoman for the department.