First-responders key to strategy

Under President Bush's national strategy for emergency preparedness and response, the proposed Homeland Security Department would build and oversee a comprehensive national system for incident management, which would clarify the roles of federal, state and local agencies in responding to terrorist attacks or natural disasters.

State and local first responders would be encouraged to adopt the incident management system, which would be a requirement tied to federal grants, according to the plan. Apart from encouraging state and local governments to sign mutual aid pacts and improve their emergency operations plans, the federal government will also help them achieve communications interoperability.

For first responders — police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel — the plan earmarks $3.5 billion in fiscal 2003, which was first announced by Bush in January, for better preparedness, including training and equipment, in emergency situations. Alan Caldwell, government relations director for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, called the plan "an excellent springboard." The IAFC, he said, was given an opportunity to provide input into this section of the document.

"What it says is that they take what we've been saying very seriously," Caldwell said. "The first read of it is positive, but as we all know, the devil is in the details."

According to IAFC officials, the document includes several essential points:

* Interagency and interjurisdictional planning.

* Wireless communication interoperability.

* Standard incident management systems.

* Local threat assessment and notification.

* Training for first responders.

* Protective measures for personnel safety based on threat assessment.

* Decontamination capabilities for victims and first responders.

In a statement, the U.S. Conference of Mayors also applauded the strategic plan and welcomed the formation of a Homeland Security Department. However, cities need federal money to cope with their dwindling resources, city officials said.

Ten months after Sept. 11, "we are still awaiting federal assistance to support our efforts to ensure that cities are prepared for and can respond effectively to any emergency," said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, the group's president, in the statement. "Cities also need the flexibility to use this funding to help cover the massive cost of police overtime, which has strained many municipal budgets across the country."

Harlin McEwen, a retired Ithaca, N.Y., police chief and former deputy assistant director in the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, said in a previous interview regarding the proposed Homeland Security Department that such a department would have a huge impact on first responders.

"What we're trying to do is make sure that we have input into it as much as possible, to make sure it's going to serve our needs," he said. "Just the fact that you're going to build a new department and put everything all under one roof or under one administrator doesn't necessarily solve anything if it's not planned right."

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