First responders falling short

Council on Foreign Relations

Although lives depend on them, first responders nationwide are drastically unprepared to handle any form of chemical, biological or nuclear attack.

Furthermore, the resources needed to train and equip first responders exist, but the necessary funding does not.

A report released June 29 by the Council on Foreign Relations' Independent Task Force on Emergency Responders made those conclusions and urged swift action to ensure that emergency personnel are ready to work effectively when a disaster strikes.

"If the nation does not take immediate steps to better identify and address the urgent needs of emergency responders, the next terrorist incident could have an even more devastating impact than the Sept. 11 attacks," according to the report, titled "Emergency Responders: Drastically Underfunded, Dangerously Unprepared."

The federal budget to fund emergency responders stands at $27 billion, and state and local governments are expected to spend $26 billion to $76 billion during the next five years. The task force claims that an additional $98.4 billion in federal, state and local funding is necessary to adequately prepare emergency responders.

The council used the most reliable data available for their budget estimates; however, they recommend that government officials come up with a better, more precise method for assessing future costs.

"I noticed that this morning the Department of Homeland Security thinks the number is overstated," former Sen. Warren Rudman, chairman of the task force, said June 29 on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Well, maybe it is by some amount, and maybe it's understated. The one thing we do say, which is critical...is there must be a national study by the Department of Homeland Security on what the minimum needs are."

Many of the weaknesses revealed on Sept. 11, 2001, have yet to be addressed. For example, the average fire department has only enough radios to equip half the firefighters on a shift and breathing apparatuses for only one-third, according to the report. Also, only one-tenth of the fire departments are capable of responding to the collapse of a building.

Time and lives were lost on Sept. 11 because the radios of various first responder groups did not operate on the same frequency. The council estimates that $6.8 billion in additional funds are needed to ensure dependable, interoperable communications for first responders in the future.

"If you ask me what are the most important things right now for American cities, I would tell you communications and equipment to deal with chemical/biological warfare," Rudman said. "We would like radios that work, and we don't have them."

The council also calls for $10.4 billion to update emergency 911 systems.

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