Emergency Communications: Improved Procurement of Land Mobile Radios Could Enhance Interoperability and Cut Costs

GAO-17-12 Published: Oct 05, 2016. Publicly Released: Oct 05, 2016.
Jump To:
Skip to Highlights
Highlights

What GAO Found

Federal agencies GAO surveyed generally use land mobile radio (LMR) equipment to meet their core missions, such as public safety, emergency management, or firefighting. More than two-thirds of the 57 agencies GAO surveyed reported using equipment from the same manufacturer because, for example, they believe doing so will help ensure compatibility of new LMR equipment with existing system requirements. Most agencies GAO surveyed were consistent in identifying each other as agencies with which they have or have not needed LMR interoperability over the past 5 years. Of the agencies that identified the need to communicate with each other, about two-thirds reported generally having a good or excellent level of LMR interoperability.

The use of standards-based and multi-band LMR equipment has helped to enhance interoperability among agencies, but the use of proprietary features and other factors continue to hinder interoperability. Almost all of the agencies that GAO surveyed reported using LMR equipment that meets voluntary technical standards, which have improved interoperability. Further, almost half of these agencies reported using multiband radios, which operate on multiple public-safety radio bands, to enhance interoperability. However, agencies reported several factors continue to limit their progress in achieving interoperability with other federal agencies. These factors include the use of proprietary features and encryption in devices and limited investments in LMR systems and devices. For example, about half of the agencies surveyed reported that the use of proprietary features within LMR devices has hindered interoperability.

Nearly half of the agencies GAO surveyed reported using pre-approved vendors with established prices to acquire LMR equipment, mainly through contracts sponsored by the Departments of Homeland Security and the Interior. While this approach can facilitate cost savings and interoperability, many of these agencies reported purchasing equipment through multiple agreements, a practice that can reduce these benefits. About 40 percent of agencies GAO surveyed reported using sole-source procurement or independent approaches. According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in general, agencies often purchase and manage items in a fragmented and inefficient manner. This approach can result in duplication of effort, which imposes significant costs on federal agencies. OMB has directed agencies to implement “category management” as an improved way to manage spending across government for commonly purchased goods and services. This approach enables the government to leverage its purchasing power and realize cost savings. However, OMB’s category management initiative does not include LMR equipment even though federal agencies spend millions of dollars annually purchasing such equipment. By including LMR equipment in OMB’s category management initiative, the government could more fully leverage its aggregate buying power to obtain the most advantageous terms and conditions for LMR procurements. OMB officials agreed that a category management approach to LMR procurement might save the government money while supporting the goal of enhanced interoperability among agencies that require it, but OMB has not examined the feasibility of applying this approach to the procurement of LMR equipment.

Why GAO Did This Study

Public safety personnel across the nation rely on LMR to share information and coordinate their emergency response efforts. LMR systems are intended to provide secure, reliable, mission-critical voice communications in a variety of environments, scenarios, and emergencies; however, LMR interoperability—the ability to communicate across agencies—has been a long-standing challenge at all levels of government.

GAO was asked to examine federal agencies’ LMR interoperability and procurement practices. GAO examined (1) LMR equipment used by federal agencies and the state of LMR interoperability among these agencies; (2) factors that help and hinder LMR interoperability among agencies; and (3) agencies’ LMR procurement practices. GAO surveyed civilian federal agencies, identified through their membership in the Emergency Communications Preparedness Center (57 agencies fully responded to the survey and one agency provided a partial response); reviewed Department of Homeland Security planning documents related to interoperability; and interviewed federal agency officials with responsibilities related to emergency communications and procurement of LMR equipment. GAO also reviewed OMB initiatives to improve federal procurement.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

GAO recommends that OMB examine the feasibility of including LMR in its category management initiative. OMB generally agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Management and Budget
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
To improve federal agency LMR procurement practices, the Director of OMB should direct the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to examine the feasibility of including LMR technology in the category management initiative.
Closed - Implemented
Public safety personnel across the nation rely on land mobile radio (LMR) systems to share information and coordinate their emergency response efforts. LMR systems are intended to provide secure, reliable, mission-critical voice communications in a variety of environments, scenarios, and emergencies; however, LMR interoperability-the ability to communicate across agencies-has been a long-standing challenge at all levels of government. In October 2016, we reported that although several federal agencies require LMR interoperability and spend millions of dollars each year on LMR equipment, many of them do not coordinate with one another before purchasing new equipment-for example, by agreeing to purchase through a limited number of high-performing contract vehicles. This approach can result in duplication of procurement efforts for similar goods and services, which imposes significant costs to agencies. OMB recognizes that agencies often purchase and manage items in a fragmented and inefficient manner, through tens of thousands of contracts and delivery orders. To address this issue, OMB directs agencies to implement a category management initiative as a way to manage spending across government for commonly purchased goods and services. Although OMB's category management initiative includes many IT goods and services, it did not include LMR equipment. OMB officials agreed that a category management approach to LMR procurement might save the government money, among other things. Therefore, we recommended that OMB examine the feasibility of including LMR technology in the category management initiative. In response to our recommendation, OMB confirmed in January 2018 that the Department of Homeland Security was establishing a contract vehicle that would allow all federal agencies to order commercially available, tactical communications equipment and services. OMB noted that in response to our recommendation the contract vehicle had been coordinated with the OMB-led Category Management Leadership Council as an initiative within the Security and Protection Category Manager's Strategic Plan. By examining the feasibility of including LMR equipment procurement in the category management initiative, OMB has identified a contract vehicle that may enable the federal government to more fully leverage its aggregate buying power to save money and obtain the most advantageous terms and conditions for LMR procurements while also helping agencies to more effectively communicate in their day-to-day operations and when responding to emergencies.
Office of Management and Budget
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
To improve federal agency LMR procurement practices, the Director of OMB should direct the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to, if warranted, include LMR technology within the appropriate spend category.
Closed - Implemented
Public safety personnel across the nation rely on land mobile radio (LMR) systems to share information and coordinate their emergency response efforts. LMR systems are intended to provide secure, reliable, mission-critical voice communications in a variety of environments, scenarios, and emergencies; however, LMR interoperability-the ability to communicate across agencies-has been a long-standing challenge at all levels of government. In October 2016, we reported that nearly half of the 57 agencies we surveyed reported using pre-approved vendors with established prices to acquire LMR equipment, mainly through contracts sponsored by the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Interior. While this approach can facilitate cost savings and interoperability, many of these agencies reported purchasing equipment through multiple agreements, a practice that can reduce these benefits. These agencies spend millions of dollars each year on LMR equipment, but many of them do not coordinate with one another before purchasing new equipment-for example, by agreeing to purchase through a limited number of high-performing contract vehicles. OMB recognizes that agencies often purchase and manage items in a fragmented and inefficient manner, through tens of thousands of contracts and delivery orders. This approach can result in duplication of procurement efforts for similar goods and services, which imposes significant costs to agencies. In response, OMB announced its category management initiative, an approach based on leading practices to manage entire categories of spending across government for commonly purchased goods and services, such as IT hardware and software. Such an approach enables the government to leverage its purchasing power and achieve cost savings. At the time of our review, OMB had not yet considered LMR equipment within its category management initiative. However, OMB officials acknowledged that a category management approach to LMR procurement may save the government money while also supporting the goal of enhanced LMR interoperability among agencies. Therefore, we recommended that, if warranted, OMB should include LMR technology within the appropriate spend category of its category management initiative. In 2019, GAO confirmed that DHS had established a contract vehicle that would allow all federal agencies to order commercially available, tactical communications equipment and services, which includes LMR equipment. OMB coordinated this contract vehicle with the OMB-led Category Management Leadership Council as an initiative within the Security and Protection Category Manager's Strategic Plan. OMB designated the contract vehicle as "Best in Class" and believes that this designation, along with a government-wide effort to drive spending through Best in Class solutions, is an effective category management strategy for LMR procurement. By including LMR equipment in OMB's category management initiative, the federal government will be able to more fully leverage its aggregate buying power to obtain the most advantageous terms and conditions for LMR procurements, which may result in cost savings.

Full Report

GAO Contacts