Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill authored and introduced by Congressman Donald M. Payne, Jr. (NJ-10), H.R. 4289, the DHS Interoperable Communications Act, by a vote of 393 to 0. The DHS Interoperable Communications Act would clarify the Undersecretary for Management's responsibilities related to communications systems at the Department by charging the Undersecretary with developing "policies and directives to achieve and maintain interoperable communications among the components of the Department." The bill unanimously passed through committee on a bipartisan basis last month. Watch the floor debate here.
"I was shocked to learn how much money had been spent on interoperable communications since the September 11th terrorist attacks and still little to show for it," said Rep. Payne, Jr.
Since September 11, 2001, the federal government has spent more than $13 billion on efforts to achieve interoperable communications. Further, according to a November 2012 Inspector General Report, DHS has invested over $430 million into communications capabilities for its 123,000 radio users since 2003, but Department "personnel do not have reliable interoperable communications for daily operations, planned events, and emergencies." In a May 7, 2012 hearing before the Committee, DHS Inspector General John Roth confirmed the failure by testifying that 479 DHS field radio users were asked to get on and use a specified channel to communicate, however, only 1 of those 479 radio users could get on the common channel.
"The IG Report demonstrated a 99.8 percent failure rate; clearly, we must do more to improve emergency communications," Rep. Payne, Jr. continued. "Police officers and firefighters from Newark to Jersey City and across the 10th Congressional District of New Jersey never leave my office without stressing the importance of interoperable communications. Interoperable communications capabilities are critical to the mission DHS carries out and to first responders across the United States, and this bill will keep DHS accountable toward that end. I was happy that Congress took bipartisan action today that will improve the safety of our first responders and our communities."
Section 3 of the legislation gives the DHS Undersecretary for Management 120 days to present to Congress a strategy of achieving interoperable communications within the Department. The strategy should include:
An assessment of interoperability gaps in radio communications among the components of the Department.
Information on efforts and activities, including current and planned policies, directives, and training, of the Department since November 1, 2012, to achieve and maintain interoperable communications among the components of the Department and planned efforts and activities of the Department to achieve and maintain such interoperable communications.
An assessment of obstacles and challenges to achieving and maintaining interoperable communications among the components of the Department.
Information on, and an assessment of, the adequacy of mechanisms available to the Under Secretary for Management to enforce and compel compliance with interoperable communications policies and directives of the Department.
Guidance provided to the components of the Department to implement interoperable communications policies and directives of the Department.
The total amount of funds expended by the Department since November 1, 2012, and projected future expenditures, to achieve interoperable communications, including on equipment, infrastructure, and maintenance.
Dates upon which Department-wide interoperability is projected to be achieved for voice, data, and video communications, respectively, and interim milestones that correspond to the achievement of each such mode of communications.
Furthermore, the Act requires that the Undersecretary of Management make a biannual reporting to Congress on the progress of each milestone established under the Act; information on policies established by the Undersecretary; and an assessment of the level of compliance, adoption, and participation among the components of the Department.