GAO says more planning needed for DHS emergency communications

The Homeland Security Department should improve planning for its program to let key officials continue to correspond when communications networks are damaged or overly congested, according to congressional investigators.

The program, named the National Communications System (NCS), is designed to let senior government officials, disaster response and military command personnel, and law enforcement and public safety officials continue their work when networks are damaged or overly congested because of disasters such as hurricanes or terrorist attacks.

In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office said DHS hasn’t released a formal acquisition approach for providing priority voice and data communications as telecommunications technologies evolve. GAO recommended DHS develop plans for NCS’ next-generation project that include an acquisition approach, realistic cost estimates and mitigation plans.

“By clearly defining its acquisition approach for the initiative and developing mitigation plans to address known risks and technical challenges, NCS can help minimize cost overruns and schedule delays, and more importantly help ensure that it is developing services that meet the emerging communication needs of the [national security/emergency preparedness] community,” GAO concluded.

However, the report said NCS officials had taken steps to increase participation in two NCS programs designed to give priority calling service to key officials when telephone networks are congested or damaged and to ensure that service is limited to authorized users.

Meanwhile, according to the report, DHS terminated a pilot program to explore the use of satellite technology after methods for implementing and evaluating of the project weren't clear. GAO also said the NCS program hasn’t finalized its strategic plan that has been under development since 2007. Its current performance measures don’t cover all of the system's core responsibilities.

In addition to developing plans for NCS’ next-generation program, GAO recommended DHS finalize the program’s strategic plan and strengthen performance measurements to cover all core program activities. GAO said DHS agreed with the recommendations.

The results of GAO’s performance audit were released Sept. 28. Investigators did their work from June 2007 through August 2009.

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