Outdated Radios Fail Capitol Police

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008

The U.S. Capitol Police guard one of the nation's biggest terrorist targets. But their radios conk out in "dead spots" around congressional buildings and have limited connections to local police in the Washington area, officials say.

Channels on the Reagan-era police radio system often crash, officers said. One went down during President Bush's State of the Union address to Congress in January, according to several officials. Last year, all five Capitol Police radio channels briefly collapsed, prompting officers to whip out their personal cellphones to communicate, officials said.

"It has some type of failure at least once a week," said Matt Tighe, head of the Fraternal Order of Police labor committee that represents Capitol Police officers.

Despite receiving billions of federal dollars since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the nation's first responders still struggle to communicate, even in Washington. In recent years, local police and firefighters have built a modern, digital radio network. But they can have trouble reaching federal officers who use different frequencies and outdated equipment.

The Capitol Police force isn't the only one with radio problems. The U.S. Park Police, in charge of protecting the Washington Monument and other icons, have a radio system that is between 20 and 30 years old, officials said. And a report last year found that 84 percent of FBI radio systems nationwide are obsolete.

"Logically, 9/11 is a wake-up call that federal, state and local agencies ought to work together to build something much better than what they have today," said Jon M. Peha, associate director of the Center for Wireless and Broadband Networking at Carnegie Mellon University. But, he said, "little progress has been made" toward a strong national system.

The Capitol Police rely on hand-held and car radios on an analog system. The equipment doesn't work in several "dead spots" around congressional buildings, officials said.

The system's age complicates efforts to link it to those of nearby law enforcement agencies. Because of such difficulties, the Capitol Police have resorted to installing D.C. police radios in their cars alongside their own radios. Another concern for officers: Most of the Capitol Police system does not have encryption, as newer equipment does.

"It can be monitored by the public, media and our adversaries," said one officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.

Phillip D. Morse, who became Capitol Police chief in 2006, has been blunt about his force's "antiquated" radio system. "We cannot communicate effectively with each other," he testified before a House subcommittee last year. Morse declined a request for an interview.

Congress has given the Capitol Police hundreds of millions of dollars to enhance anti-terrorism protection since the Sept. 11 attacks. Terrance W. Gainer, the Senate sergeant-at-arms who helps oversee the force, said the money went to other priorities, including a hazmat unit and officer hiring.

One difficulty in building a better radio system is the project's scale, said Gainer, who led the Capitol Police force from 2002 to 2006. The radios must work not just on streets but also throughout the thick-walled, marble-sheathed congressional buildings, including the basements. Officials also want the new system to have backup capacity to prevent failures.

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