Homeland security at the grass-roots level

Concerns raised by Boston residents typify nationwide challenges of terror response.

One woman pleaded for more details about the safety of a biomedical research facility to be built near the Boston University campus. A Revere police officer asked how his department can fulfill homeland security requirements in the face of personnel trims. Others wanted to learn about emergency-alert plans - how to contact and be contacted in the case of a disaster.

They are questions that could be posed in any city or town across the country. In fact, as a bipartisan commission in Washington hashes through who-knew-what upon the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, residents at a forum in Boston raised their own concerns about what homeland security - a term that to many feels like an intangible patchwork of plans and purchases - means for them.

The efforts Boston has made, the challenges it faces, and the uneasiness its residents still sometimes feel - especially after attacks like the Madrid bombings - typify the atmosphere in cities throughout the country.

"There are critical issues [here]," says Patricia McGinnis, president and CEO of the Council for Excellence in Government, which sponsored the forum at Fenway Park last week. She cites transportation, the city's high tech industry, and its port - recently drawn to attention since former US counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke claimed in his new book that Boston and its liquefied natural gas tankers could have been a point of entry for terrorists. There are Boston's Hancock Tower and Prudential building to protect. And the city is expecting to host 35,000 visitors at the high-profile Democratic National Convention this July.

Boston, long proud of its hub of innovation and learning, is also acutely aware of its role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - two of the hijacked planes hijacked took off from Logan International Airport - and has spent the past two years readying its emergency response. There are more vaccines, equipment, and training programs in place. The city just named its first director of homeland security this month. Most important, experts say, is a spirit of cooperation.

Last week's meeting was the fifth in a six-city national tour including St. Louis, Miami, San Diego, Houston, and Seattle. It brought together Gov. Mitt Romney, Mayor Thomas Menino, Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole, and local officials, firefighters, police officers, and other first responders.

This step toward community cohesiveness is a part of the national Homeland Security from the Citizens' Perspective initiative. The Council for Excellence in Government has launched a website, www.citizensecure.org, that it hopes will become a nationwide forum to respond to citizens' concerns and offer recommendations to local and statewide officials when preparing for or responding to emergencies.

It's an effort at organization that some feel has been missing. "In two years I've seen a willingness of communities to cooperate and put together partnerships," says Karen Anderson, mayor of Minnetonka, Minn., and a member of the US Department of Homeland Security's State and Local Senior Advisory Committee. "There's still a lack of coordination for a whole lot of new responsibilities."

Thomas Ambrosino, the mayor of Revere, Mass., says this "regional approach" has helped grow a culture of working together that wasn't previously in place. The Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, of which he is a member, includes nine communities in addition to Boston. It has jointly purchased safety equipment and is working on a cross-community "reverse 911 system" - a prerecorded emergency-alert phone message that dials citizens - among other initiatives.

To help with efforts in Boston, and in time for the national convention this summer, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino appointed Carlo Boccia to run security in the city and coordinate efforts with surrounding towns. Boston is one of four of the nation's largest cities - including Detroit, San Diego, and Houston - that has created a local high-ranking homeland security post.

Many agree with the model, especially for large cities. "Everyone who works in city government ... they all have day jobs. They all have to be very focused. Police departments still have to put drug dealers and bank robbers in jail," says John Cohen, a homeland security analyst in Washington, D.C., who works as an adviser in Massachusetts.

"On the flip side, as people are looking toward homeland security for the long-term, it's not as effective to think of it as something that is an adjunct to the day-to-day business of city government," he says.

Cities and towns throughout the country, however, have faced budget cuts. When Mayor Ambrosino took office in January of 2000. Revere had 107 police officers and103 firefighters, he says. Now the community is down to 86 police officers and 89 firefighters.

Funding has been a bigger issue for smaller cities - those considered less at risk to terrorist attack. While the DHS has identified 33 cities as "high threat areas," a designation that qualifies them for direct federal grants, many communities complain that funding is frozen at the state level. Governor Romney is chairing a task force set up by the DHS to explore ways to more effectively funnel money from states into local communities.

"If you are running a city like Washington, D.C., or New York, or Boston, you have more assets and resources from the federal government to help initiate some homeland security activities," says Charles Lyons, the president of the National League of Cities. "For the smaller communities the biggest complaint is that [the money] doesn't get to them. When a terrorist attacks, people call 911, they don't call the White House, or the governor's mansion."

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