It was the first time a stranger had said anything so unbelievably nice to Houston police officer Vanessa de la Garza. As she sat in a restaurant in her crisp blue uniform, someone came up and said, "I'm glad you're doing this job. If no one else tells you today, let me be the one to say, 'Thank you for being a police officer.' "
Welcome to the world of post-Sept. 11 "first responder" heroes.
Showered with public gratitude, but overtaxed by the security expectations created by the 9/11 attacks, America's police, fire, and emergency-medical personnel are facing the worst - and yet somehow best - of times. They're crucial players in the biggest themes of Tuesday night's State of the Union address.
President Bush has asked for $3.5 billion in his new budget for first responders - as part of the overall war on terrorism.
That funding in tough economic times - along with strangers' gratitude, neighbors' cookies, and offers of dates - adds to the blossoming purpose many first responders feel in their daily drudgery.
Ms. de la Garza had been doubting the value of her career. But now she sees her job as largely to calm people's fears - and is "proud to be a police officer."
Yet these are tough times - with the flood of panicky citizen calls, extra patrols, and other antiterror duties. And first responders' improved public image alone won't pay the bills.
"Our call volume is probably 100 percent greater" since Sept. 11, says fire Capt. John Adams in St. Petersburg, Fla.
There are also concerns that neither cash-poor local or state governments - nor Uncle Sam - will provide enough funds to make first responders a prime domestic bulwark against terrorism. Mr. Bush's $3.5 billion "won't even be noticed" scoffs Ron Wakeham, the fire chief in Des Moines, Iowa. "We need about $100 billion to do it right."
And some budget watchers speculate Bush's $3.5 billion isn't really new spending - that it's just old "law-enforcement" money now tagged for "security." Things will be clearer Feb. 4 when Bush's budget is released.
Perhaps the biggest change for America's first responders since Sept. 11 is in how the public treats them. People no longer see us as "a tyrannical power," says Arthur Matamoros, a deputy constable in Harris County, Texas. "I mean, who else can we depend on" - if not police and firefighters?
The public's response has come in many forms. There were the legions of flowers, cards, and teddy bears brought to station houses far away from New York City or Washington, D.C. There was a spontaneous parade down The Strip in Las Vegas by police and firefighters - with gamblers pouring out of casinos to cheer their respects. There were countless other random acts of gratitude.
All the buzz made first responders akin to "Minutemen leaving home to fight the British," says Chief Wakeham. Indeed, the sign-me-up spirit is thriving in Des Moines. He's expecting 600 applications for 18 firefighter slots this year - and attributes the uptick to the new hero status, as well as to people seeking solid government jobs amid a shaky economy. Five-year Des Moines veterans make $49,600 a year after all - working 10 days a month. "The pay is good, the economy is bad, and we're the heroes," he laughs. "So we're the big magnet."
Self image changes
Even if the initial public adulation has faded somewhat since the days just after Sept. 11, it's given rise to a sea change in attitude among many public-safety officers themselves.
All these kids walking up and shaking your hand and wanting your autograph "makes you feel like a star," says Sgt. Horace Nero, a 39-year veteran of the St. Petersburg Police Department. It all "makes you work a little harder on the job."
Indeed, Gregg Jackson, a bike-patrol officer in Houston says Sept. 11 has compelled him to "pay attention to every little bitty thing" - like "what else is going to happen or who else is going to try to do something." It's put him on edge - but also has boosted his awareness.
There's even some evidence that increased vigilance is making a difference in crime control in Houston. The University of Houston Police Department reports 98 more campus arrests in 2001 than in 2000 - many of them coming after the Sept. 11 attacks. (And it's not because students or others are committing more crimes, officers there say.)
Finally, Sept. 11 and its echoes are even making a difference in the home lives of some. Twenty-year veteran Houston firefighter Herman Bloomberg says he's now constantly mindful of the dangers of his job - and it's given him some healthy perspective.
"My wife and I try not to sweat the small stuff" anymore, he says.
All this perspective may be useful, given the increase in duties for many first responders. Hazardous materials (HAZMAT) and bomb teams have been especially busy. "For a while it was nonstop for the bomb team," says Joe Durkin, a Tampa, Fla., police spokesman. Things have since calmed down. But just last week, Sergeant Nero in St. Petersburg rushed to a US Coast Guard station with a HAZMAT team because the office had received a letter with no return address. False alarm. Even Des Moines gets three or four HAZMAT calls a day.
A National Conference of Mayors survey found that since Sept. 11 - and through the end of this year - 192 cities expect to spend an extra $2.6 billion on security - much of it on police overtime.
Despite the new spending, law enforcement has atrophied in some cities. In St. Petersburg, people sometimes complain that police are slow to respond to calls.
Local law-enforcement, furthermore, may also have to replace the FBI in investigating things like bank robberies and narcotics trafficking - as the FBI focuses on terrorism.
More duties with the same amount of resources won't do for long. And there's a big push for new money. But, because most states have balanced-budget restrictions and looming cuts, they're looking to Washington as a savior, even as it slips into red-ink spending. Yet ultimately it may come down to state and local spending: More than two-thirds of all law-enforcement spending comes from state and local taxes. The federal share of local law-enforcement budgets is sometimes just 15 percent.
Another trouble with relying on Washington: Most first responders would pick personnel as the top priority over training and equipment. But the federal government prefers to pay for equipment and training. Washington would rather buy, say, a fire truck - a one-time deal good for sometimes 20 years. Paying for people's salaries is a long-term, pricey proposition.
Contributing to this report were staff writer Kris Axtman in Houston, Cathy Scott in Las Vegas, and Lynn Waddell in St. Petersburg, Fla.