Points of contact
In several critical areas, front-line state and local organizations feel overlooked by DHS
On Sept. 11, 2001, all terrorism became local.
State and local governments remain the front-line soldiers in the war against terror on domestic fronts. As the overseers of most first responders—firefighters, police, emergency medical personnel and public health workers—are they getting the resources, technology and support they need from the Homeland Security Department?
Although progress has been made, gaps remain in the interface between DHS and state and local governments. Three areas—IT infrastructure, funding and information sharing—are showing up as chronic holes in the home front’s war on terror.
The most important element of two critical links between DHS and the locals—interoperability and information sharing—is the technology infrastructure that supports them, said Gerry Wethington, Missouri’s CIO and president of the National Association of State CIOs. This is the element that DHS frequently misses.Diverse IT infrastructures
State and local governments have highly diverse IT infrastructures, Wethington said. DHS needs to take a closer look at these fundamental issues. “There hasn’t been a willingness to support IT infrastructure stability and growth to meet the interoperability needs,” he said.
Wethington said it would help if DHS and other federal agencies gave the same priority to protecting IT infrastructure—through measures to bolster cybersecurity, business continuity and disaster recovery—that it does to first-responder equipment.
Federal agencies have put state and local governments in the position of having to be extremely creative in writing their applications for funding, as well as “purposely vague” to avoid using language that is not specifically referenced as an allowable expense, Wethington said. State and local governments should not be reinvigorating their infrastructure by trying to circumvent “bad language,” he said.
“Until the federal government specifically provides recognition of the need for an investment in the IT infrastructure—and makes it an allowable expense—I believe we are going to continue to struggle,” Wethington said.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Just when most states began experiencing serious economic downturns, the need for homeland security spending took a sharp upturn.Funding formula changing
Congress is set to change a formula that in 2004 distributed 40 percent of $3 billion in homeland security funds evenly to all states, and divided the remaining 60 percent among states by population density. Under this method, some rural areas wound up getting far more per capita than densely populated areas, which are more likely to be the target of a terrorist attack. For example, Wyoming had a per capita allocation of $36 for 2004, whereas Michigan received $7.12 per person.
A congressional report, America at Risk: Closing the Security Gap, written by the House Select Committee on Homeland Security called this formula “irrational.” The report suggested that homeland security spending over the next five years should be tripled to prepare first responders.
“It’s been the peanut butter approach to grants,” said Tom Davies, senior vice president of market research firm Current Analysis Inc. of Sterling, Va. “Spread the money across the United States to ensure everyone gets something. A much more targeted approach based on need and vulnerability is better.”
DHS is indeed changing the formula for funding, said DHS spokeswoman Valerie Smith. In the 2005 budget request, about $1.4 billion in grants from the Office of Domestic Preparedness will go to states, and another $1.4 billion to urban security initiatives.
Another problem is the speed—or lack thereof—of the funding process.
In an audit issued by the DHS inspector general in March, the department said state, local and first-responder organizations have been slow to receive ODP first-responder grant funds. As of February, most funds from first-responder grants awarded by ODP in the past two years had not been allocated to state and local governments. Some of the delay was because governments believed “that spending the funds wisely was more important than spending them immediately,” the report said.
The DHS IG called the current preparedness grants process fragmented. DHS plans to smooth the process by consolidating its preparedness grant programs, including first-responder grants, and combining ODP and the Office of State and Local Government Coordination.
But some analysts have said DHS asks for too much and gives too little.
“The federal government’s expectation for grassroots ‘regionalism’ to orchestrate the efforts of disparate jurisdictions is asking too much,” said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer with Federal Sources Inc. of McLean, Va.
Most jurisdictions don’t have the funds for extensive collaborative projects, with notable exceptions such as the Capital Wireless Integrated Network, or CapWIN, a regional digital first-responder network for the Washington metropolitan area. And many of the available grants are for “boots and suits” for first responders, not IT, Bjorklund said.
New homeland security mission requirements have led to bureaucratic hindrances in distributing federal funds to the states, he said. First responders within the states are not getting the funding they need quickly enough. Sometimes the federal requirements for matching funds have choked the money pipeline, Bjorklund said.
As a result, state governments are taking funding matters into their own hands, supplementing their homeland security IT funds with sources other than DHS, Wethington said. States are putting their own funds toward developing IT infrastructures, as well as for justice projects or health networks.
“For five years now everyone has been saying that we need to stop building silos,” Wethington said. “But when you look at how government appropriates funds, we still tend to appropriate them in silos, such as health and human services, or justice. In that approach, those monies can be used for those programs only.”Information sharing
State and local officials are unanimous in saying that the most potent weapon in the war on terror is information. But the sharing of information, to date, has been incomplete and unreliable. Some congressional sources and homeland security analysts have suggested three revisions to the current relationship between DHS’ Office of State and Local Government Coordination and state and local governments:
- Consolidate the federal government’s terrorist watch lists and share them with state and local officials who have received security clearances. The lists are unavailable even to the chiefs of police of large cities. DHS has mechanisms in place to clear local officials, but many have complained that the process is too slow.
- Refine the Homeland Security Advisory System to allow for state and local officials in high-risk areas to receive specific information—and guidance—about terrorist threats. For example, a local government will have to make radically different preparations for a threat against a bridge versus an attack with biological weapons.
- Encourage regional or multistate task forces to coordinate intelligence and information sharing needs.
Some agencies have begun making these changes, said Jeff Vining, research vice president of intelligence with Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn. Recently, the FBI enhanced its process for information by assigning some state and local officials to its joint terrorism task forces.
And Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) recently said he would introduce legislation to speed the free flow of emergency response information among federal, state and local officials. The measure would provide grants to first responders for the technologically compatible equipment they need to respond to a disaster.
Lieberman’s measure would also require DHS to develop plans for an interagency task force to create an information-sharing network that will link homeland security activities at the state, local and federal levels. The department also would be required to establish an office of interoperable communications.Regional cooperation
One of DHS’ strategies for state and local homeland security is to promote regional information sharing. Progress has varied from slow to very good, Wethington said.
State homeland security directors need to be involved at the start of planning. “Where it gets slow is when you have plans that are pushed out to local officials that state ‘Thou shalt do these things.’ That doesn’t sell well anymore,” he said. But recently the federal government has become more inclusive, bringing state, county and city officials to the table to help define programs, he said.
Wethington said he still sees “a gap and void in most states” compared with the federal government’s security intelligence. The federal government has joint congressional committees with top-secret clearance. And because their work has national security implications, they are not required by law to disclose their discussions, which allows for high-level discussions. Most states don’t have a committee to discuss such security issues.
Wethington said states should appoint roughly five to eight officials who receive security clearances to take action on homeland security issues without disclosing what they have learned. “State and federal models of intelligence and security just don’t match up,” he said. Washington Technology staff writer William Welsh contributed to this report.