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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.
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.”