Public safety agencies around the country have spent the past year preparing for a terrorist attack. They have drawn up strategic plans and staged mock incidents and table-top events. They have implemented agreements to share information and formed regional response teams. They have become experts in gas masks and protective clothing. Some say these tactics are akin to closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. Others say the United States is finally responding to warnings issued years earlier, often by those who were once considered lone voices in a wilderness of government and public denial.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks has been funding, typically the lack of it. Most cities and counties have increased police and fire funding since 9-11, but in many cases, budget bumps can barely meet newly established needs. One county recently estimated that the cost of upgrading its communications infrastructure for police, fire, and health would be at least $100 million. Another county reports that the cost of outfitting first responders in the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) would be upward of $25 million. New York City says the cost of installing repeaters for the Fire Department's communications system will run anywhere from $150 million to $250 million.
The federal government is attempting to help state and local agencies defray some of these costs through proposed funding in the President's budget for the newly formed Office of Homeland Security. If approved by Congress, money from the First Responder Initiative would be distributed to each state on a "base-plus population" formula. With this formula, each state receives a base amount. Additional funds are distributed according to the state's percentage of the nation's population.
The money will flow first from federal coffers and then through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Each state will be free to devise its own plan for how the funds will be allocated. One state will distribute funds through "operational areas," whose boundaries mirror county boundaries. Other states may create regions based on agency proximity or the ability to coordinate a regional response. Funds will again be allocated using the base-plus formula.
Money from Homeland Security’s First Responder Initiative will likely be used to update and upgrade the fire department and emergency medical service equipment of American cities.
States will have to decide how to direct the money to police, fire, and health. One idea is to create a council from each area that includes representatives from each discipline. The council would recommend how the funds should be distributed after an initial division of 20 percent to each discipline. The remaining 40 percent of the area's funding could be discretionary and distributed according to priority of need.
But at this point, these are only ideas. The First Responder Initiative has yet to complete its trek through Congress. That will be accomplished later this year. The plan also has its disadvantages, namely that only $3.5 billion of the proposed $38.5 billion would trickle down to local agencies. When distributed throughout the nation and then stacked up against the cost of terrorism preparedness, it seems a pittance.
Mike Byrne, senior director for Response and Recovery in the Office of Homeland Security, defends the plan. "(This money) is a 1,000 percent increase over what was previously available. It also recognizes that this is a new threat, and that it is appropriate for the federal government to help state and local agencies prepare. It doesn't mean that preparation is totally a federal government responsibility. It would also be inappropriate for us to take over local responsibility. What this money will do is support the local efforts to get where they need to be," says Byrne, a 20-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, who joined FEMA in 1999.
One of the goals of the Initiative is to provide agencies with funds for chem/bio equipment.
"We are trying to accomplish three things," Byrne says. "We want to make the funding as flexible as possible, which is why each community will do its own risk and vulnerability assessments. We are confident that the local community knows what it needs better than we do. Second, we want to encourage the development of regional aid agreements. A city like New York might need a large number of HazMat units, where in other parts of the country, two or three counties might develop a single HazMat capability. Third, we are looking to develop a national approach to training and exercise. All states have emergency response teams, and we are looking for them to make those more robust and to add in the challenge of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. We hope they won't compromise or hinder regional approaches, but we would like to see them link their plans together so they speak a common language and operate in a cooperative environment."
Agencies will be required to use First Responder Initiative funds in four areas:
Planning-To support state and local governments in developing plans to prepare for and respond to a terrorist attack.
Equipment-To pay for PPE, chemical and biological detection systems, and interoperable communications equipment.
Training-To pay for training fire, police, and EMS workers to use such equipment, and to operate in a chemically or biologically contaminated environment.
Exercises-To support regular simulation and table-top exercises to improve response capabilities, practice mutual aid, and assess operational improvements and deficiencies.
These requirements dovetail with recommendations recently issued in a report produced by McKinsey & Company for the Fire Department of New York. The report takes a detailed look at the response by FDNY and EMS on Sept. 11, and in particular, problems with communication, command and control, and tracking of dispatched units and patients treated by EMS.
Some journalists have used the report as a jumping-off point in attempts to indict public safety agencies in other areas of the country. But the report was not issued for that purpose. It was commissioned by the FDNY to find the gaps in service and find ways to alleviate them.
According to the study, the department struggled with communications when the repeater system in the World Trade Center was destroyed. Also, command and tactical channels were unreliable in high-rise areas and provided only sporadic communication, which "left chiefs not knowing whether their messages failed to get through, whether the units failed to acknowledge because they were busy with rescue operations, or whether the units did acknowledge but the acknowledgement did not get through," the report says.
One of the most important goals of the First Responder Initiative is to make it easier for fire, emergency medical, and law enforcement personnel to communicate. This is likely to pay dividends on routine calls and terrorist attacks.
"Chief officers in the lobbies of WTC 1 and WTC 2 also had very little reliable information on what was happening outside. They had no reliable sources of intelligence, and had no external information about the overall status of the incident area, the condition of the towers, or the progression of the fires. ...They had no access to television reports or reports from an NYPD helicopter that was hovering above," the report says.