Hometown security gets funding boost

Office of Domestic Preparedness FY2003 State Homeland Security Grant Program guidelines

In the past week, the Homeland Security Department (DHS) has released nearly $600 million to states and territories, with a significant portion earmarked for local first responders. The department also announced a $750 million grant program for firefighters.

It's a temporary relief to governors, mayors and other local first responders and officials who have complained vociferously and frequently during the past year about the federal government's sluggishness in providing promised funds to strengthen hometown security.

"It was well-received," said Deborah Rigsby, senior legislative counsel for the National League of Cities, which just held its annual conference in Washington, D.C. "I think they're optimistic of the state and local office that is within the new [Homeland Security] Department."

But it is still only a first step.

She said many local officials were concerned by a news report that funds may not be available until July. "That presented a concern for members because they said with the country poised or could possibly go to war, leaving the front lines domestically vulnerable was a concern," she said.

The Office for Domestic Preparedness, which recently moved from the Justice Department to DHS, would administer the $566 million for equipment, exercise, training and planning.

Interoperable communications equipment is a "huge, huge concern" as is planning among local governments, Rigsby said. She said many local governments are purchasing devices that can bridge disparate communications equipment until they can afford to upgrade their equipment and the spectrum issue is rectified. Many cities are also approaching terrorism preparedness through a regional framework and with mutual aid, she added.

While cities advocate direct homeland security block grants, she said that as long as 75 percent of the funds earmarked for first responders are received within 45 days of a grant's award, as outlined in the Office for Domestic Preparedness program guidelines, "then our leadership supports that."

For the $750 million, fire departments can apply to the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program for training and equipment for their fire and emergency medical services programs, to enhance their public education and awareness initiatives, or other activities. The program is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Although the program was welcome news, the head of a major firefighters union rebuked the Bush administration and Congress for pointing fingers at each other regarding homeland security funds.

In a March 11 letter to President Bush and several congressional leaders, International Association of Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger said it was time to stop the "blame game, the political posturing and the petty bickering.

"At this point, we don't care who is to blame for underfunding Homeland Security money for first responders and we don't think the American people do either," he said in a statement. "All we want is to secure the necessary funding before it is too late."

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