Newer Radios Are Sought To Protect Lawmakers

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

Legislators expressed frustration yesterday that the U.S. Capitol Police are still using an outdated radio system that suffers frequent breakdowns, even though Congress is considered a major terrorist target.

"I am concerned that we do not have what we need to have here," Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) told a hearing of the House Administration Subcommittee on Capitol Security.

He added that while Congress has done everything necessary to protect the White House, "we don't seem to have that same urgency with respect to our nation's Capitol."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), head of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, recently blocked the Capitol Police from starting to spend money on the new radio system. Wasserman Schultz said she was upset that the police had submitted only a "vague outline of a proposal" with an estimated cost that had doubled to $70 million.

Wasserman Shultz met yesterday evening with top Capitol Police officials and said afterward that they had cleared the air. But she said the money wouldn't be released immediately.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks revealed problems in the country's emergency communications, the U.S. government spent billions of dollars to upgrade radios and computers of first responders. The Capitol Police have been planning a new radio system for years, but they have delayed the upgrade because of other spending priorities.

During the hearing yesterday, Capitol Police Chief Phillip D. Morse said that his officers "are experiencing failures on a regular basis" with their radio system. Most of the infrastructure is 25 years old, and "manufacturers no longer make many of the critical parts . . . which substantially increases the risk that we will not be able to respond appropriately in an emergency or even during normal operating conditions," he testified.

He explained that the earlier cost estimate was based on simply improving the officers' analog radios. However, "we would be enhancing a system that eventually would be obsolete," he said. Instead, the Capitol Police decided to build a new digital system with more channels.

Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Capitol Security, questioned the price tag. He noted that a vendor had suggested that the police piggyback on a radio system used by Department of Defense facilities in the D.C. area.

"It raises some serious questions about potential savings," Capuano said.

Both Morse and a senior technology official from the Department of Homeland Security, David Boyd, testified that the Capitol Police needed a system geared to their needs rather than defense priorities.

Boyd said that the project's cost could be comparable to the $86 million that Metro is spending to upgrade its radio system. However, he warned that the Capitol would face different issues than Metro, such as figuring out how to install communications equipment in historic buildings.

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