The risks of the Dwelling Workplace radio system
Forest fires raged across much of the western United States last year. A total of over 50,000 fires impacted more than 10.2 million acres and destroyed over 10,000 buildings, losing 46 people at a cost of over $ 16 billion. In California alone, 16,600 firefighters fought just 25 of these fires, a large part of which took place on DOI federal property.
The DOI is the largest landowner in the United States, especially in the West, but unfortunately the most critical aspect of its public safety ability is severely lacking – the ability to communicate. DOI owns or manages over 600 million acres of land within its sub-agencies of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS), and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
A small cadre of dedicated law enforcement, firefighters, and medical professionals ensure the safety and protection of all of these cultural and natural resources, as well as those who live in or visit these countries. They respond to crimes, conduct search and rescue missions, fight fires, provide emergency services, and conduct all public safety missions.
In 2007, DOI carried out an audit of the radio communication program and found that the DOI has an unsafe and unreliable radio communication environment that “endangers the health and safety of DOI employees and the public”. Poorly maintained infrastructure leads to the results in the report.
This insecure communications platform has been effective in all DOI countries, including national parks, fish and game reserves, Indian reservations, the many BLM properties, and even in Washington, DC, where large areas are under the jurisdiction of the NPS.
In 2010, a former NPS ranger who worked on Blue Ridge Parkway discussed how bad the radio system was. He described an incident in which he held three armed suspects at gunpoint for three hours, all because he was waiting for assistance because of the poor radio service. He attributed the inadequate radio systems to insufficient funding.
As recently as last summer, during the protests in Washington, DC, the US Park Police, a division of the NPS, was unable to record key transmissions, sparking both a congressional and security outcry from the police union.
This failed communication system came about after DOI allegedly tried to remedy the many communication deficiencies that were identified in the 2007 audit. After 10 years and presumably with some funding, a DOI “Verification Review” was published in 2017, which stated that the recommendations of the report had been reviewed and it was determined that the problems had been resolved, implemented and closed. This finding was made in spite of the fact that DOI did not test internal controls, visit sites, or do field work to determine whether the underlying deficiencies originally identified had in fact been addressed.
This lack of verification was recently highlighted at Pinnacles National Monument in California, where – again – there were at least 10 medical incidents due to poor, unreliable communications. A public telephone system was not available to either the dispatcher or the visitor to receive emergency assistance.
Fighting the fire was also more difficult with a faulty radio and telephone system. The NPS reported its inability to communicate between the east and west boroughs of Pinnacles, preventing them from warning and possibly evacuating a wild land fire at the park entrance.
Despite these clear security problems, neither Congress nor DOI recently approved investments in the DOI radio systems in their component agencies. Even with record forest fires in 2020, neither the DOI 2021 budget nor any of the congress hearings last year addressed or financed the topic of improving the DOI radio system.
Which begs the question of whether it is not imperative that their radio communications conform to the majesty of what they are intended to protect if the DOI is to protect the cultural and natural resources of our country and its visitors? If DOI’s goal is to preserve our nation’s crown jewels, it starts with ensuring a radio call can be heard from sea to shining sea.
Donald J. Mihalek is a retired Senior Regional Training, Tactics, and Firearms Instructor for the Secret Service. He is also the executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.