First Responders Sound Alarm on Loss of Grant Money

By Stew Magnuson
During the past 10 years, large cities have been the recipients of federal government largess to help them prepare for the possibility of a terrorist attack.

The Department of Homeland Security, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has disbursed billions to bolster first responders’ ability to react to such incidents.

With federal budget cuts looming, local law enforcement and fire departments are growing worried that the money will dry up, or be sharply reduced. And this comes at a time when local governments are already laying off first responders and closing fire stations as their revenues shrink in a moribund economy.

That puts first responders in cities at risk of not only being unprepared for terrorist attacks, but also losing the capabilities they have built up during the past decade, said Chief Ronald Mastin of the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department.  

“No localities that I know of can pull that kind of money out of a bank. In fact, most localities that I know of are being asked to make budget cuts,” he said at the National Defense Industrial Association annual homeland security conference.

The Greater Washington, D.C., capital region, which is one of 10 cities designated by DHS as having a high-risk for terror attacks, has spent its federal dollars on seven ambulance buses, five mass casualty buses, decontamination trailers for weapons of mass destruction attacks and on a cache 1,250 interoperable radios that can be distributed in emergencies. The radios are also used for large crowd events such as the 2008 inauguration ceremonies, he said.

All these items require upkeep, especially chemical protective clothing, some of which must be disposed of and replaced after a few years. Gains made could be lost if funding dries up for operation and maintenance costs, he said.

“If they are important enough to get, then they are important enough to sustain,” Mastin said in an interview.

Fairfax County, as part of the greater capital region, receives urban areas security initiatives grants, which are for the high-risk cities.

Other DHS grants that may be reduced include: Operation Stonegarden, which gives money to border communities to enhance security; the metropolitan medical response system program, which seeks to boost municipalities ability to respond to mass casualty events; and the citizen corps program, which helps community and government leaders together to coordinate emergency preparedness.

During the last few years, the thinking in the disaster response community has moved away from terrorism response scenarios to more of an “all-hazards” approach. Mass casualty terrorism events are rare, after all. Mother Nature creates more havoc on an annual basis than manmade catastrophes. And these events can strike anywhere, not just large, high-risk cities.

“No jurisdiction alone, that I’m aware of, has the resources to buy and equip every first responder for the things that they need,” Mastin said.

The drumbeat from DHS during the Obama administration has been that the nation needs to be resilient and prepared for a variety of catastrophic scenarios. Disasters, whether they are terrorism related or natural, will occur, and the nation needs the capacity to bounce back.

Matthew R. Bettenhausen, former director of the California emergency management agency, said his state has one of the best mutual aid systems in the world. Local first responders near each other share resources when they are overwhelmed.

“Not every police and fire department needs every tool in the tool kit, but they need access to it,” he said.

But local jurisdictions are increasingly unable to sustain mutual aid agreements as city budgets decline.

“It is rough to ask localities now to pay for the privilege of helping your neighbor,” Bettenhausen said.

“It’s frustrating and sad to see that deteriorate, because in the long run, it saves money,” he said.

Topics: Homeland Security, Disaster Response, Emergency Communications

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