The Federal Communications Commission is aggressively pursuing a massive, multibillion-dollar national wireless network that would enable emergency response personnel to more easily communicate with one another, despite an ongoing strain on government coffers.

The idea is known as interoperability, in which communications systems otherwise made up of disparate parts that aren’t always compatible can work together effectively.

Poor radio connectivity stymied the response both to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and Washington has since been slow to fulfill promises of reform that would make it easier for first responders to more easily communicate with one another in times of peril. The latest plan by FCC officials could cost as much as $16 billion over the next decade and be financed through fees paid by broadband users and money allocated from Congress.

But largely overlooked so far since the FCC announced its costly ambitions are multiple negative reports in recent years that have questioned the progress and management of major state and local public safety radio initiatives already underway.

The biggest let down of all, perhaps, occurred in New York state. Following years of setbacks, officials there canceled a colossal $2 billion contract with a private vendor to establish wireless communications for the state’s emergency responders. The system reportedly suffered from equipment failures and coverage areas that weren’t always dependable. A contractor blew through deadlines set for needed repairs of the system in two counties where testing was taking place, according to press accounts.

State troopers in Virginia reportedly grew so frustrated with new radio equipment experiencing problems there that they began using personal cell phones to communicate. State auditors concluded in April of 2009 that completing the $330 million project “on-time and on-budget remains a concern.” Laptops used in government vehicles that were supposed to be linked to the system failed up to 30 percent of the time, and officials at one point stopped installing them “because the rate of failure does not meet the contract specifications,” according to auditors.

Known by its acronym as STARS, Virginia’s pricey attempt to upgrade public safety radios began all the way back in 2000. A state lawmaker said to the Richmond Times-Dispatch that STARS “has had continuing problems, and we are repeatedly told this thing will be corrected and made to work. At some point you just wonder if we are getting the whole story.”

Glitches have also plagued a $17.5 million police radio system in Milwaukee where officers complained that they couldn’t hear radio transmissions, “including calls for back-up,” the Journal-Sentinel reported in November.

Then just recently in late May, Wisconsin state auditors found that there were serious unknowns in a statewide interoperability project years in the making and funded in large part with federal homeland security grants. Local governments weren’t sure how much it would cost for equipment needed to access the system, and in some cases, the price tag “may be significant,” auditors determined. Radios that first responders do have could be too weak to establish a connection, and the system may not work well in urban areas.

Federal auditors looking at the use of preparedness grants in California found last year that two San Francisco Bay Area counties had committed over $33 million to an interoperable radio system. But local officials were unsure where they would find $50 million more to distribute thousands of new radios to the health department, emergency medical services, police, firefighters, the public works department and the sheriff. The auditors also determined that no formal cost analysis of a multimillion-dollar agreement with private contractors was done “to assure that the price was fair and reasonable.”

Our partners at the Center for Public Integrity put together an extensive look at interoperability in the United States and reported earlier this year that Congress rushed to spend on new communications hardware like radios and antennas for local first responders before fully understanding the level of planning that needed to take place. That included a failure to determine how training on new equipment would occur and what command-and-control protocols would look like.

Some homeland security officials worry that as cities improve their communications systems without thinking regionally, they’ll create “islands of interoperability” by purchasing new equipment and not considering whether it links to other, older devices used by their neighbors. That’s precisely what auditors discovered in Georgia during 2008.

Among CPI’s own findings:

From 2004 to 2008, the only years for which detailed figures are available, the Department of Homeland security approved more than $4.3 billion in grant money to improve interoperability among first responders nationwide. DHS officials have said that more grant money has gone to interoperability than to any other initiative, and it continues to be a major focus for DHS grant programs, while also drawing funding from the economic stimulus package. Yet for years, results have failed to live up to expectations. In 2004, then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge promised that by year’s end, it would be possible for most first responders to talk to each other in a crisis. But in 2005, Hurricane Katrina proved that the country was nowhere near ready to handle a real disaster. By 2009, DHS officials were still struggling to convince Congress that first responders could reach basic communications goals.

Here’s a partial list we’ve compiled over time of several state-level audits that examined emergency radio systems:

Wisconsin Emergency Management – A Review, May 2010, Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau

Virginia Interim Review of STARS Project, April 2009, Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts

Georgia Interoperable Communications: State Must Provide Additional Leadership, September 2008, Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts

Idaho Governance of Information Technology and Public Safety Communications, March 2008, Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations

Colorado Public Safety Radio Communications, October 2007, Colorado State Auditor’s Office

Missouri Homeland Security Program (refers to radio project), May 2006, Missouri State Auditor’s Office

Alaska Land Mobile Radio Project, September 2005, Alaska Division of Legislative Audit

Flickr image by avramc

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.