Security funds reach small towns, but at a trickle

Connecticut town can buy Hazmat suits, but communication center remains a dream

Chief Fire Marshal Richard Morris leans against the boardwalk rail and looks out through the morning mist at the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant across the harbor. Behind him are railroad tracks that carry tankers full of hazardous material through at least once a day. In another building, a stone's throw away, is the town's central sewer system.

"Are we ready for a nuclear outburst? Probably nobody is," he says. "But we have an evacuation plan in place. We're up to speed if there is a terrorist attack."

Welcome to a potential small town ground zero and an illustration of what is working and what remains to be done in the nation's ongoing effort to rebuild its civil defenses.

Almost four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, more than $7 billion dollars have been appropriated for the nation's first responders, yet only a fraction of it - just over 1.2 billion - has actually gotten to the nation's emergency personnel.

In Connecticut, as in most states across the nation, much of that new homeland-security money is caught in bureaucratic bottlenecks. The causes of delay range from the need to create new departments on the state level to disperse the funds to arcane purchasing requirements. In other cases, grants have been given, but manufacturers of security equipment, like bomb resistant robots, have large back orders, and the equipment has yet to reach firefighters.

There have also been some questionable uses of funds, such as commissioning a homeland-security rap song in Washington, D.C., buying a paging system for a state fair in South Dakota, and acquiring Segway scooters for bomb-squad personnel in Santa Clara, Calif.

But in the past six months, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and dozens of states have finally begun to clarify their missions, assessing and prioritizing risks as they streamline their grantmaking processes.

In April, DHS put out its first "National Preparedness Goal," which lays out specific criteria to give the states and localities guidance on the best way to utilize their homeland-security dollars. The House has also passed a bill that would require all future homeland-security grants to be distributed based on potential terrorist risk. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.

Combined, all of the efforts are slowly but surely beginning to make a difference on the local level. "We've got a couple of years under our belts now, so we're getting to the point where we can start defining at the very least what the bare minimum essential capabilities and standards are," says Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington.

Locals like Chief Morris are beginning to see that progress. But there remains frustration born from paperwork and bureaucratic technicalities.

"The money did get stuck and it's still stuck," says Morris. "The gaps remain in the understanding of what is acceptable stuff, what is truly a need and what is a wish. Homeland Security has figured that out through the first two or three years.... We'll see how well with this round of grants due this month."

Last year, East Lyme received $95,000, money that went to buy things like hazardous material suits and an all-terrain vehicle "gator" to help first responders navigate through big summer crowds on the beach. But what the town really needs is a new communications center that will help police, fire, EMS, and public works officials communicate with one another as well as with other towns surrounding the nuclear power plant. That could cost as much as $4 million dollars.

East Lyme officials are talking with nearby towns about the possibility of proposing a regional communications system. "It's on the drawing board, but will it ever take place, will it ever happen?" says Morris. "I don't know."

Another frustration has to do with what's called "boots on the ground," personnel. Many towns have found that while DHS offers the opportunity to buy plenty of equipment and training, they don't always have enough people to take advantage of it.

"We're finding lots of places where there's plenty of training available and plenty of equipment, but not enough people to use either of them," says Barry Kasinitz, director of governmental affairs for the International Association of Fire Fighters.

In East Lyme's case, they have enough people to cover when officers go for training, but not enough money to pay for it. DHS provides $200 a day for what's called "backfill." But because the officers who are covering are usually working overtime, that only pays part of their wage. For large cities, DHS now pays the entire cost. Morris hopes that will be expanded to all areas as well.

But Mr. Kasnitz of the International Fire Fighters wants DHS to go further. He supports a bill that will provide grants to hire more fireman, a move that DHS opposes. "We do get complaints that we don't allow homeland-security dollars to be used for boots on the street," says Marc Short, a DHS spokesman. "But our philosophy is that homeland security is shared responsibility with local and state governments. We provide equipment and training. If we're also providing the personnel, what's left in the shared responsibility?"

On the state level, Connecticut's security officials are confident that shared responsibility will go more smoothly in the future, in part because a new Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security recently came into existence.

"I can understand the frustration on the local level, it's taken a long time to do this," says Wayne Sandford, deputy commissioner of the new department. "But in a lot of ways we are also fortunate. While we were on hold waiting for the new agency, the Feds were doing a lot of work. So now the Feds are rolling out their programs, saying, 'This is the direction we want you to go in.' And we'll be able to follow their lead."

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