The rules must change

It's amazing how quickly an old idea can take on a new sense of urgency. Until recently, the concept of federal, state and local agencies sharing information and collaborating on projects generated a lot of talk and maybe a little action. But with the threat of bioterror, it has become a matter, literally, of life and death.

During the past several years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has worked on a project known as the Health Alert Network. HAN and related programs are intended to provide a flow of information among CDC, state health departments, local public health offices and related organizations, so health officials can spot a disease outbreak as soon as possible.

HAN is a great idea, but the threat of bioterror has arrived before the network is fully in place. According to public health experts, 10 percent or more of local public health offices do not have adequate equipment or connectivity to take part in the system. Because these offices serve as the eyes and ears for CDC, that's a critical gap.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case, but part of an emerging pattern in homeland security. State and local governments have never had the technology funding or the expertise available to federal agencies. The disparity is an inconvenience when it comes to delivering certain government services to the public. It's a crisis when it comes to defending the nation.

Clearly, that's why the pioneers in information sharing are often found in law enforcement, where a lack of communication among law enforcement agencies can mean a criminal gets away.

The disparity exists because there has never been a compelling reason to address it. You might even say the problem is built into the system. State and local governments, serving smaller constituencies, never will have the deep pockets of federal agencies. And technical and even cultural differences exist because federal, state and local governments were intended to operate independently.

The federal government must take a lead role in closing these gaps, in whatever way possible. That's a tall order, given the long history of apathy and sometimes antagonism among the different levels of government. But if the nation is to mount an adequate defense against biological attacks and other threats, the rules must change.

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