The dangers of the Department of Interior’s radio system

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Wildfires raged across much of the Western United States last year. In total, over 50,000 fires impacted over 10.2 million acres, destroying over 10,000 buildings with a loss of 46 people to a cost of over $16 billion. In California alone, 16,600 firefighters fought just 25 of those fires, much of which occurred on federal property owned by the Department of the Interior (DOI).

The DOI is the largest landowner across the United States, especially out West, but unfortunately, the most critical aspect of its public safety capability is severely lacking — the ability to communicate. Within its component agencies of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Park Service (NPS) and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), DOI owns or manages over 600 million acres of land.  

A small cadre of dedicated law enforcement, firefighters and medical professionals ensure the safety and protection of all those cultural and natural resources and all who live or visit those lands. They respond to crimes, conduct search and rescue missions, fight fires, provide emergency medical services and perform the full range of public safety missions.

Back in 2007, DOI conducted a Radio Communications Program Audit and found that the DOI had an unsafe and unreliable radio communications environment that “jeopardizes the health and safety of DOI employees and the public.” Poorly maintained infrastructure lead to the results in the report. 

That unsafe communications platform was in effect across DOI lands including in national park, fish and wildlife sanctuaries, Indian reservations, the many BLM properties and even across Washington, D.C., which has large areas under NPS jurisdiction.    

In 2010, a former NPS ranger who worked on the Blue Ridge Parkway discussed how poor the radio system was. He described an incident where he held three armed suspects at gunpoint for three hours, all because he was waiting for backup due to the poor radio service. He attributed the insufficient radio systems to lack of funding.

As recently as last summer during the protests in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Park Police’s, a division of the NPS, radio system failed to record key transmissions prompting both a Congressional and safety outcry from the police union.  

This failed communication system comes after DOI allegedly tried to address and fix the many communication deficiencies identified in the 2007 audit. After 10 years, and presumably some funding, a 2017 DOI “Verification Review” was published saying that the report’s recommendations were reviewed and it was determined that the issues had been resolved, implemented and closed. This finding was made despite DOI not testing internal controls, visiting sites or conducting fieldwork to determine whether the underlying deficiencies that were initially identified had in fact been corrected.  

That lack of verification was highlighted at Pinnacles National Monument in California recently, where at least 10 medical incidents took place — again — due to poor, unreliable communication. There wasn’t a public phone system available to either the dispatcher or the visitor to get emergency assistance.

Fighting fires has also been more difficult with a faulty radio and phone system. The NPS reported its inability to communicate between the East and West Districts of Pinnacles, which blocked them from warning and possibly evacuation from a wild land fire at the entrance of the park.

Despite these clear safety issues, neither Congress or DOI has approved any recent investments in the DOI radio systems across their component agencies. Even with record wildfires of 2020, neither the 2021 DOI budget nor did any of last year’s Congressional hearings cover or fund the subject of improving the DOI radio system.   

Which raises the question that if the DOI is tasked with keeping our nation’s cultural and natural resources and its visitors safe, isn’t it imperative that their radio communications match the majesty of what they are tasked to protect? If the goal of DOI is to preserve the crown jewels of our nation, it starts with ensuring a radio call can be heard from sea to shining sea.  

Donald J. Mihalek is a retired senior Secret Service Regional Training, tactics and firearms instructor. He also serves as the executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

Tags audit Department of Interior DOI DOI budget DOI radio communication National Park Service NPS radio communications radio systems wildfires

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