Called up for duty

In the moments after the first airliner slammed into the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001, and the emergency calls went out, the new and vital role that state and local governments would play in homeland security was being defined.

The magnitude of that responsibility has sunk in with local government officials, who, according to a recent survey, overwhelmingly cite homeland security as a top technology initiative in the coming year. Yet the record of tangible accomplishments — such as new computer and communications systems for better planning, recognition of and response to terrorist attacks — is uneven.

This special report shares both the good news and the bad news about homeland security initiatives at the state and local levels and takes a close look at the areas in which significant progress has been made and those in which considerable work still needs to be done. We also explore the special role that industry will likely play by providing the outside expertise and resources that are in great demand now that work has begun.

In reviewing those initiatives, it is clear that the federal government has a critical role to play in ensuring their success. Quite simply, the greatest progress has been made when federal funding and leadership have been strongest.

For example, a program spearheaded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the Health Alert Network (HAN) has made enormous strides recently. It is improving the ability of local health departments to participate in a nationwide system for quickly identifying disease outbreaks, distributing health alerts and sharing information electronically.

On other fronts, there has been less progress, particularly when it comes to basic infrastructure modernization efforts, the precursor to many of the more ambitious plans. To cite just two of the more common areas of concern, many state and local governments are hampered by outdated and incompatible wireless communications equipment for their emergency workers and by inadequate data networks that can't support effective disaster recovery programs.

Unfortunately, the drawn-out process in Washington, D.C., to create a Homeland Security Department hasn't helped, nor has the pinch of a sluggish economy on state and local budgets.

Even so, there are bright spots and encouraging signs of innovation from the local levels of government. Take, for example, the work of several local jurisdictions to enlist their geographic information systems for homeland security duty. Originally built to manage routine affairs such as real estate tax assessments, those systems are providing officials with the power of geographical analysis to identify situations and deploy and direct emergency service workers accordingly.

Examples like these show that local governments can be far more than mere foot soldiers carrying out orders from the top. Instead, they are valuable partners in homeland security and a rich source of creative thinking and dedication to the national cause.

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