- By Dibya Sarkar
- Nov 30, 2003
It was a former senator who raised the alarm this summer. The nation's first responders were drastically unprepared to handle a catastrophic attack, particularly one involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-impact conventional weapons.
The warning heated up an ongoing discussion about funding for first responders and led to the contention that how money is spent is a
more important issue than how much money there is.
Retired Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) led a 20-member independent task force for the Council on Foreign Relations. The blue-ribbon panel was composed of Nobel laureates, scholars, top corporate executives and former high-level federal officials, including Richard Clarke, former White House terrorism and cybersecurity expert. In a June 29 report, the panel said first responders were underbudgeted to the tune of $98 billion, the minimum needed to establish an effective response to catastrophic attacks.
The report states that the money wasn't for a first responders' wish list but would fund real unmet needs in interoperable communications, 911 systems, hospital and public health preparedness, fire services, emergency operations centers and other areas.
However, more than a month later, Rudman, testifying before a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee, said the figure was just an educated guess. "Nobody knows what the number is," he said.
A year and a half after terrorists attacked the United States in September 2001, the federal government began funneling money to state and local governments for those unmet needs. For fiscal 2004, President Bush recently signed a $37.4 billion appropriations bill for the Homeland Security Department, including more than $4 billion for the Office for Domestic Preparedness for state and local governments.
Now many experts are saying that it's not the amount of money but how efficiently and effectively it's spent that counts. In other words, the federal government has to prioritize needs to get the most out of what it spends.
"Since November of 2001, I have repeatedly stated to Congress and the [Bush] administration that the greatest threat to the American homeland is not nuclear weapons, is not biological weapons, chemical weapons, large conventional explosives [or] cyberweapons," said homeland security expert Col. Randall Larsen, speaking before the House Select Committee on Homeland Security's Emergency Preparedness and Response Subcommittee Oct. 16.
"In my opinion, in 10 years of studying this subject, the greatest threat is uncontrolled spending," Larsen said. "We cannot afford to provide every first responder with every piece of equipment and every training program on their wish lists."
The message might be getting through. Congress is looking to revamp formulas on how it allocates grants to first responders, taking into account threat and vulnerability assessments to communities depending on their critical infrastructures.
There is also a shift toward providing regional grants, although discussions are only beginning on Capitol Hill on how to define regions. And there's more of an emphasis on developing standards across a range of needs to help communities spend the money wisely.
Money grows on Capitol Hill
Although first responders are on the front lines of homeland defense, the federal government stands — financially and strategically — at the center to drive first responder preparedness. The dragging economy has erased state and local revenues, leaving governments to grapple with serious budget shortfalls. It's virtually impossible for them to fund new programs, hire personnel or test new technologies.
Since the Homeland Security Department was formed, it has made available more than $4.4 billion for first responder training, planning, exercises and equipment purchases in high-threat, high-density urban areas, as well as for port, aviation and mass transit security. However, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has called for direct homeland grants to cities rather than having them pass through states, reported that anywhere from 40 percent to 90 percent of cities have not received funds from the federal programs designed to help first responders, according to a 168-city, 50-state analysis released Sept. 17.
"We found that over half of the cities have either not been consulted or have had no opportunity to influence state decision-making about how to use and distribute funding," said James Garner, mayor of Hempstead, N.Y., and the association's president, testifying at the subcommittee hearing.
Susan Benton, director of strategic initiatives at the Center for Digital Government, a research institute, also said that, by and large, city and county officials have reported that only a small percentage of federal funds have made it to the local level.
But Christine LaPaille, communications director at the National Governors Association (NGA) disputed the conference's report, saying the mayors are using outdated information.
"All of [the homeland security directors] were sending us information back saying this is absolutely not true," she said. "Some of the cities [that] were complaining didn't even apply for the funds. The reality is that states have gotten very good at quickly allocating their funds."
As the federal government requires, most states have dispersed 80 percent of the funds earmarked for localities within the federally prescribed 45-day window, LaPaille said.
The National Association of Counties and the International Association of Emergency Managers released a survey in October generally supporting NGA's stance. It indicated that 64 percent of the counties received funding. Of that, 15 percent received 100 percent of the requested funding. Seventy-three percent of counties said states kept them well informed about the funding process, and 61 percent said their counties or regions are better prepared for terrorist attacks as a result of the planning and funding process.
Although state and local officials might disagree on that issue, they do agree that a predictable, steady stream of federal funding would be better than a battle for such appropriations every year.
"Mayors believe that without some kind of predictable, direct funding — rather than year-by-year decisions made at the state level — it will be difficult to budget for long-term homeland security activities at the local level," Garner said.
A common denominator
Federal standards and guidelines -such as the enterprise architecture released this fall (see "Homeland security's secret weapon," Page S12) — are crucial so that states, cities and counties don't develop a hodgepodge of systems that may or may not be interoperable.
For example, Gregory Frank, executive vice president of the Battelle Memorial Institute, said half a dozen interoperability programs have been funded during the past several years, but they are not standardized.
"The states are doing their own thing," he said. "Each major city has its own equipment. There's an emphasis on the standardization for training and equipment that's going to happen over the next couple of years. There's going to be an emphasis [on] identifying the technical needs that are not being met for current off-the-shelf equipment and technologies."
That's one of the major missions of the InterAgency Board for Equipment Standardization and InterOperability and DHS' Science and Technology Directorate, which is charged with researching, organizing and adapting scientific, engineering and technological resources into usable security tools. Experts say they're actively working on standards with numerous organizations and agencies.
But the directorate is just getting up to speed, said Peter Kant, vice president of the Jefferson Consulting Group, which helps private companies work with the public sector.
"The Science and Technology Directorate did not exist, and they have been the most under the gun," Kant said. "And they are the ones responsible for trying to define the standards person, chemical biological countermeasures person, infrastructure person. It is imperative they get up and running."
Neal Pollard, a senior director with Hicks and Associates Inc., said he has heard that 80 percent to 90 percent of the equipment first responders use do not have standards. Of those that do, it is uncertain if all have undergone independent, third-party testing, evaluation and certification.
Setting a standard is a long and laborious process because it has to be done right the first time, Pollard said. Standards will be important as chemical and biological detectors and
sensors, information-sharing systems,
alternative energy sources and distribution methods, biometrics and other new technologies are developed.
Frank said it's incumbent upon DHS leaders to start working on standards and provide guidance so money can be spent effectively.
"And I think that is not saying that they're doing a bad job," he said. "I think the nature of the reorganization itself and the dramatic change that occurred with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security takes time. That's what I think needs to happen."
Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology Inc., said homeland security officials and others involved also need to think differently.
"We have become convinced in the technology realm that [a] traditional, hierarchical, top-down strategy is not very applicable in homeland security initiatives," he said. "Homeland security by definition is network-oriented. It's neither possible nor feasible for the federal government [to create] the homeland security map that everyone salutes and then implements. We're learning as a nation."