According to a report today from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), top government agencies responsible for developing a nationwide federal wireless communications service for use by first responders are no longer coordinating with each other. The report, requested by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman and Ranking Member Susan Collins, found the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Treasury Department are now working on individual interoperability projects rather than implementing the Integrated Wireless Network (IWN) program.

For years, departments and agencies across the federal government had developed radio communications systems to suit their particular communications needs. However, this often led to first responders from different federal agencies not being able to communicate with one another when responding to the same event. The IWN program was intended to solve this problem by developing a single nationwide federal wireless communications service to replace each of these individual systems, so that law enforcement officials and first responders from across the federal government could effectively communicate during an emergency. According to the GAO report, DOJ and DHS are now working independently on projects; running the risk of duplicating their efforts, increasing the use of resources, and ending up with a system that lacks interoperability.

Senator Collins said, “The communications failures during the terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina cost lives. Yet, despite these hard lessons and the millions already spent on the IWN program, the lead federal departments have failed miserably in achieving interoperability across the federal government. GAO’s report should serve as a wake-up call. Congress and the next Administration will have to redouble efforts to ensure nationwide interoperability for all first responders.”

Senators Lieberman and Collins have worked together to improve communications interoperability at all levels of government. The Senators created the Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program, which has provided millions of dollars in grants to increase the ability of state, local, and tribal governments to communication effectively during a catastrophic disaster or terrorist attack. The grants can be used for initiatives that are consistent with Statewide Communications Interoperability Plans and the National Emergency Communications Plan.

Furthermore, in the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, Senators Lieberman and Collins established an Office of Emergency Communications within the Department of Homeland Security to consolidate and coordinate emergency communications and interoperability policy. Under the Act, that office has been tasked with conducting an assessment of nationwide emergency communications capabilities and developing a national strategy for emergency communications.