Communication breakdown: US Secret Service needs a radio-system upgrade

DHS Inspector General says a single missed transmission or delay could result in a national incident


The US Secret Service needs to upgrade its radio communications system before it creates difficulties in protecting the White House, the Vice President’s residence and foreign diplomatic embassies.

That was the general conclusion of a report issued this week by The Department of Homeland Security Inspector General who stated: In the case of radio communications, a single missed transmission or delay could result in a national incident. Secret Service must ensure that its communications programs work effectively.

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The DHS Inspector General was tasked with reviewing the Secret Service system after an intruder made it over the White House fence and actually entered the building in September 2014. Communications failures were cited as one of the reasons for that security failure.

The Washington Post wrote of the incident that breaches of the White House fence have become more common, “but most jumpers are tackled by Secret Service officers guarding the complex before they get even a third of the way across the lawn. The man, Omar Gonzalez was the first person known to have jumped the fence and made it inside the executive mansion.”

Some observations from the DHS report:

  • We observed 186 radio tests with officers from the JOC, fixed security posts, and roaming patrols at the White House complex, the Vice President’s Residence, and at embassies in Washington, DC. Of the 186 radio tests, 6 (3%) of the radio transmissions were unsuccessful.
  • In one case, the mobile radio in a vehicle manned by an officer from the emergency response team did not work. However, the officer had a handheld radio that did work properly. In another case, an officer’s radio did not work and Secret Service replaced the radio.
  • In our testing, we noted inherent radio limitations, and unclear transmissions, which could lead to a communication breakdown during an emergency.
  • Additionally, we also reviewed Secret Service’s Radio Trouble Log, which documented technical issues that interrupted the radio systems and communications during an11-month period.
  • The tests we observed during normal day-to-day operations were generally successful. However, we noted issues that could lead to a breakdown in communication during an emergency. For instance, it took some officers several attempts to communicate because they either had to wait for air time or were “stepping on “concurrent transmissions. This is an inherent limitation in radio systems. In some cases, the transmissions at the JOC sounded “garbled” to us, but the dispatcher responded the transmission was “loud and clear.”
  • Additionally, we observed instances where nearby radios were “garbled,” or did not receive the transmission, even though the JOC and the officer were able to communicate.

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For its part the Secret Service said by fiscal year (FY) 2019, Secret Service plans to invest about $54.2 million to upgrade its radio systems in the Washington, DC, area. This amount does not include what Secret Service will need to update its other radio systems.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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