Blaming an “administrative oversight,” federal auditors have found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency allowed public-safety agencies nationwide to buy billions of dollars in two-way radios without ensuring the equipment could interact with other brands meeting uniform standards.
The agency’s grant guidance said that federal, state and local agencies “should” meet the voluntary standards worked out over more than a decade by government and industry officials but didn’t require them to do so, internal auditors for the Department of Homeland Security found in a newly released report.
The failure helps explain why communications problems persist a decade after a federal commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks called for major reforms to ensure that emergency responders arriving at disaster scenes can talk with each other. Only last January, the auditors noted, radio failures complicated rescue efforts in the nation’s capital when an electrical malfunction filled subway cars with smoke, killing one passenger and sickening dozens more.
Homeland Security officials have agreed to fix the problem, the auditors said.
I am pleased that the Department has agreed with our recommendations to improve its grant guidance, which should ensure that taxpayer funds are used to purchase equipment that will actually work in an emergency.
Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth
Three senior House Democrats requested the audit in response to a series of McClatchy articles published last year that detailed how industry giant Motorola Solutions Inc. has dominated the public-safety radio market, sometimes to the detriment of improving communication among agencies.
For decades, Motorola has held more than 80 percent of the multibillion-dollar radio market, which is financed entirely by taxpayers, often by selling proprietary equipment that could not interact with most other brands.
The articles also described how the company has used close relationships with state and local contracting officials, police and fire chiefs and county sheriffs, as well as an array of marketing strategies, to effectively lock in sales of its pricey radio equipment in all but a smattering of public safety agencies in the nation’s 20 biggest cities.
The ubiquitous presence of the company’s radios, dispatch consoles and master controllers often has led agencies to buy from Motorola to ensure their radios will interact.
Motorola, which was not named in the audit, says it complies with all laws and regulations and no longer produces proprietary equipment.
The three House members – Reps. Anna Eshoo of California, Diana DeGette of Colorado and since-retired Rep. Henry Waxman of California – sought a broader inquiry into Motorola’s tactics and whether government contracting officials have helped the company avoid competition.
The office of John Roth, inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, focused on whether grant guidance by department entities was adequate to ensure that radio equipment would be “interoperable” – that is, that models purchased from different manufacturers could talk to each other.
From fiscal 2012 through 2014, more than $5 billion in Homeland Security grants were available for the purchase of radio equipment, the auditors found. But in writing the grant guidance, the Office of Emergency Communications, within the department’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, failed to dictate that the money must go for systems that can interact, they wrote. Thus, agencies receiving department grants were free to buy “non-interoperable” equipment.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which awarded the department funding through eight different programs, also used inconsistent guidance in advertising and awarding the grants, the audit report said. Both agencies have corrected the language inconsistencies in advertising fiscal 2015 grant awards.
“Without interoperable emergency communications equipment, the lives of first responders and those of whom they are trying to assist may be at risk,” the auditors said.
It was partly because New York’s fire and police departments carried different radio brands during rescue efforts on 9/11 that more than 100 firefighters didn’t hear an order to evacuate the South Tower of the World Trade Center and lost their lives when it collapsed.
FEMA did not immediately respond for comment.