Aid for 'First Responders'

It only took up one line of the State of the Union, but it will occupy countless hours in city halls, state houses, and on Capitol Hill.

That's the president's promise to increase federal funding for "our heroic police and firefighters." The need for more support for these "first responders," as well as emergency medical staff, has been a matter of consensus ever since Sept. 11.

But with budgets tight at both the state and federal levels, funding is a dilemma. Mr. Bush proposes $3.5 billion specifically for the purpose. While police, fire, and local officials welcome that move, they say it's far short of what's needed to be ready for possible future emergencies, such as a large-scale bioterrorism attack.

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Police and firefighters' associations will ply the halls of Congress in coming weeks hoping to expand the federal aid. Above all, they want enough money to hire more staff. California, for example, wants 316 more highway patrol officers and hopes Washington will pick up most of the tab.

But funding is only one facet of this issue. As federal support for local emergency services grows, how will lines of authority be redrawn? Federal help usually comes with strings attached. Who will set priorities?

These questions must be weighed by local interests. And by the federal policymakers who deal out the money. A prime use of the aid should be training for firefighters and others to better prepare for terrorist attacks.

Then the locals will be better able to exercise their own initiative.

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