Congress aims for 'first responder' aid

White House Office of Homeland Security

When Congress reconvenes, it will face a mountain of proposed homeland security laws that focus on helping what many are calling the first line of defense — the fire, police and emergency rescue agencies in cities and counties.

Because most of the measures are aimed at state and local governments that have clearly demonstrated a need to beef up "first responder" agencies, Congress is right to take action, many observers say. Deciding which of these measures to enact, and just how to fund them, however, will be the hard part.

In the first two months after Sept. 11, 130 measures relating to homeland security were introduced in the House of Representatives. There's just not enough money to go around to fund all of the measures, and federal, state and local governments must prioritize, said Randall Larsen, director of the Anser Institute for Homeland Security.

"We have to spend a lot of money for homeland security, but there's not a lot of room for waste," he said. Any broad-based security measure "needs to be developed off a strategic plan and it needs to come from [Tom] Ridge's Office of Homeland Security."

According to Capitol Hill staff members, most of the congressional proposals grew out of discussions, hearings and accounts of first responder agencies after the terrorist attacks. Many agencies said their resources were being stretched to the limit, and their problems were exacerbated by difficulties in hiring and training, lack of equipment, and information- and intelligence-sharing issues with federal law enforcement agencies.

Just before Congress adjourned for the year, for example, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) announced a $24 billion homeland security bill to bolster state and local efforts to protect critical infrastructures against terrorist attacks. Honda's bill would enable state and local governments to work directly with information technology companies to update and strengthen their networks and would also improve intergovernmental and interagency coordination and information sharing.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) has proposed a matching grant program for fire, police and emergency medical rescue agencies covering hiring, training, equipment and other resources. The bill, which would authorize spending $10 billion across 10 years, empowers the Attorney General's office to dispense the grants to local agencies.

On Dec. 13, 2001, Rep. Stephen Horn of California, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations, introduced a bill aimed at helping state and local law enforcement agencies get timely, classified information from the federal government.

Horn's bill would require a local agency to pay the federal government from $12,000 to $14,000 per person, however, to get security clearance from the Office of the Attorney General and thus become eligible to receive classified information, subcommittee deputy staff director Bonnie Heald said. The attorney general could waive the fee if the local agency grants access to its own criminal database.

Depending on which bills pass, federal agencies will need to coordinate the dispersal of funds, some Hill staffers suggested.

Seven national associations representing state and local government officials met Dec. 14 with representatives from the Office of Homeland Security and came away with pledges for greater federal/state cooperation on bioterrorism, border security issues, intelligence and information sharing and the needs of first responders, said Molly Stauffer, who represented the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Adm. Steve Abbot, deputy director of the federal Homeland Security Office, emphasized that the office is building a national security plan. Ridge will coordinate — but not direct — it, Stauffer said. Abbot also promised NCSL members that the Homeland Security Office will hold regular meetings with state and local representatives.

NCSL recently formed a 22-member homeland security task force, to be chaired by Arizona state Rep. Wes Marsh, Stauffer said. The task force may issue a report in time for NCSL's national conference in April in Denver, she added.

The National Governors Association's Ann Beauchesne, who attended the meeting, said Ridge's office plans to form a state and local advisory group, but, in the meantime, will hold informal meetings with state and local representatives.

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Proposals to help states fight terrorism

H.R. 3255: Bioterrorism Protection Act

* Proposes responding to the bioterrorism threat through improved local community response, enhanced planning and intergovernmental coordination, and improved surveillance and communications, among other things.

* Introduced Nov. 8, 2001, by Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and 103 other House members; referred to a number of House committees and subcommittees.

H.R. 3269

* Provides for the development of state medical disaster response plans regarding terrorist attacks that use biological or chemical weapons.

* Introduced Nov. 8, 2001, by Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.); referred Nov. 28, 2001, to the Subcommittee on Health.

H.R. 3435: Empowering Local First Responders to Fight Terrorism Act

* Gives grants to local first responder agencies to combat terrorism and be a part of homeland defense.

* Introduced Dec. 6, 2001, by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.); referred that day to the House Transportation and Infrastructure and House Judiciary committees.

H.R. 3448: Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Response Act

* Improves the ability of the United States to prevent, prepare for and respond to bioterrorism and other public health emergencies.

* Introduced Dec. 11, 2001, by Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and 70 other House members; passed in the House Dec. 12, 2001; passed in the Senate Dec. 20, 2001, with an amendment.

H.R. 3458

* Provides for the development and dissemination of educational materials about responding to terrorist events involving a nuclear, biological or chemical element, and provide for an emergency medicine alert network.

* Introduced Dec. 11, 2001, by Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.); referred that day to the Energy and Commerce Committee.

H.R. 3483: Intergovernmental Law Enforcement Information Sharing Act

* Increases the flow of critical information among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

* Introduced Dec. 13, 2001, by Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) and four other House members; referred that day to the Committee on the Judiciary.

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