Homegrown Security

So far, cities, states, and towns have had to travel down the homeland security road mostly alone. While some money has trickled from federal agencies like Health and Human Services, the Justice Department, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the bulk of the funds appropriated for that purpose has not yet been sent.

Still, the absence of federal dollars and of the homeland security bill (currently stalled in Congress) has helped force states and localities to adopt a useful Emersonian "lift yourself up by your bootstraps" approach. They know they're on the front lines of any possible terrorist incident.

As with private-sector security efforts, these levels of governments have been making do, quietly working to improve security. Despite tight budgets, they've found some money and training for so-called "first responders" – the emergency workers who truly are the real foot soldiers in the war against terror.

All states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, now have offices of homeland security. Many states already have taken such steps as improved standards for driver's licenses and better communications between police, firefighters, and emergency response teams.

And greater preparation is evident in nongovernmental realms too. Those who run nuclear power plants have installed added safeguards. Companies getting new computer systems often demand better backup security. Individual travelers are on alert, unlikely to just sit by if a terrorist plot starts to unfold on their plane or train.

That's not to say Washington shouldn't continue apace with its own efforts. But it's dealing with the creation of an enormous, 170,000-person cabinet-level department combining some 22 existing agencies – to say nothing of the associated political battles that entails. It ought to be taking its time to get that right.

Without a thorough job of figuring out how to organize, staff, and manage the Homeland Security Department, critical confidence in the new agency by states and local governments could be undermined.

Meanwhile, the creative, cooperative efforts of those who fully recognize the need to enhance security, now, at the local level – even as they shake off their own bureaucratic dust and turf mentalities – serves as an encouraging example to those in Washington working on similar issues.

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