Congress and President George W. Bush have agreed to increase funding for homeland security initiatives next year, including more money toward emergency communication equipment for first responders and a new public-alert system. But lawmakers and the Bush administration also have significantly cut funding for grants to firefighters and other first responders.
It's the second year in a row that Bush has not requested any funding for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, program, which helps fire departments hire more firefighters. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said earlier this year that the administration believes state governments bear the responsibility for covering personnel costs. However, at a fire service leadership summit last month, he said thathas a “great responsibility” to provide funding and support to firefighters and other first responders. Officials also argue that fire departments receive funding from other homeland security grant programs, such as the state and local grant program and the high-threat urban area initiative to help cover expenses.
In response, Congress again rejected Bush's proposal and supplied the funding. While legislators allocated $110 million for SAFER grants next year — $45 million more than this year's enacted level — they did cut funding for firefighter assistance grants. Fire departments will receive $545 million next year, $105 million less than this year. The U.S. Fire Administration will receive $45 million next year.
Where the money is
Lawmakers said in the spending bill that fire departments should use the FIRE Grant money for “all-hazards” preparedness rather than solely concentrating on terrorism. Eligible programs include wellness and fitness initiatives, emergency medical service, fire prevention programs and public education as well as equipment and training. DHS receives more than 20,000 applications for 5,500 grant awards.
The need for all-hazards preparedness is fresh in everyone's mind.President Bill Killen recently asked Congress to delay until 2007 a requirement that states be compliant with the National Incident Management System to receive homeland security funds. The said in 2004 that states must meet a Sept. 30 deadline. He testified in October that “every government agency at every level should be familiar with its concepts and be able to use it during a catastrophic event. The response to Hurricane Katrina showed us that their requirements have not been met.”
Lawmakers gave DHS $22 million to continue developing the NIMS program next year, according to the report on the department's spending bill. They wrote in the report that the department must use at least $10 million to expand the system nationwide, “with a focus specifically on standards identification, testing and evaluation of equipment, and gap and lessons learned identification.”
For other first responder grants, lawmakers approved $2.1 billion — $600 million less than this year. The state and local grant program received $550 million; law enforcement grant program is funded at $400 million and high-threat urban areas will get $765 million.
Each state will receive a minimum of 0.75% or $7.1 million from the state and local grants and the law enforcement funding. The high-threat urban area money is doled out strictly on the basis of risk and vulnerability to a terrorist attack or natural disaster. This year, first responders received at least $11 million in guaranteed funding from the grant programs.
Lawmakers argued that the cuts were justified because billions of dollars from previous years remain unspent, stuck in the pipeline between state and local governments. “It's foolish to put more money into that system,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) earlier this year, arguing that the federal government has spent an estimated $14 billion on first responder grants since Sept. 11, 2001, but the “tail has not caught up with the head.”
In October, the U.S. Conference of Mayors said that the group is “greatly frustrated” by that argument. They called on Congress to change the formula structure to directly send first responder grants from the Treasury to city officials rather than funneling the money through state governments.
“Time and time again, [surveys] have showed that money was not reaching cities quickly, and when it did reach cities, it often came with federal restrictions and rules that made it very difficult to spend on what was needed most, such as limitations on the use of overtime,” read a statement by the mayors. The group was joined by fire and police chiefs from across the country at a meeting in Washington, D.C.
They said Congress “should increase, not decrease, funding for key first responder grant programs” and allow the grants to be used for hiring and overtime for police, fire and emergency personnel and buy radios, satellite phones and other equipment that could “talk” to each during an emergency.
Congress has been providing funding to solve the interoperability problem since 9/11, and the issue resurfaced after Hurricane Katrina flattened cell phone towers and power lines in the Gulf Coast region and phone connectivity broke down for days. After touring the hurricane-ravaged area, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said that although Congress had invested money over the last four years for interoperability, the efforts had failed.
To help solve the problem, Congress will provide $27 million next year to buy technology and expand initiatives and another $20 million for the department's science and technology division to research and develop cutting edge communications technology. Lawmakers say state and local communities also can use some of the $1.7 billion in first responder grants for interoperable equipment.
The congressional agency that calculates the cost of federal programs said it would take $15 billion to upgrade equipment for firefighters and police, and experts believe it would take from 15 to 20 years to connect the 60,000 emergency workers across the country.
Lawmakers are also debating when to free up critical air waves for radio communication between firefighters and other emergency responders. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) has been fighting for the Federal Communications Commission and Congress to force broadcasters off analog spectrum and move to digital television. That transition would free up 24MHz of spectrum for first responders. Long before the terrorist attacks, “the FCC dropped the ball” on such interoperability by not giving emergency responders the “necessary networking and bands,” said Pascrell recently.
The top official charged with solving the interoperability problem said the issue is not due to technical difficulties. David Boyd told lawmakers recently that once local communities learn to work together, the basic technology falls into place. “We need leadership and commitment for that to happen,” he said.
Which states get what
Another simmering debate in Congress is over how much each state should be guaranteed in first responder grants. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress set up grants for first responders using the status-quo formula for grant programs. They guaranteed each state 0.75% in funding and the remaining funding would be allocated on the basis of population and population density. That formula, which has been widely criticized by political observers, gave states like Wyoming more money per capita than New York.
Critics, including the special commission that investigated the terrorist attacks on the United States, have been calling on Congress for the last two years to redo the formula. The 9/11 Commission said 100% of the funding should be doled out on the basis of risk and vulnerability. Lawmakers argue every state and community must have a predictable and adequate flow of money to prepare for a terrorist attack or natural disaster. They add terrorists will exploit the weakest link.
The issue has pitted urban lawmakers against their rural colleagues. The groups each have their own bills pending before Congress to revamp the formula. If one proposal wins out over the other and becomes law, it could cost either rural or urban communities millions of dollars over the coming years.
In the rural states' corner are Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). Their legislation would combine all three pots of first responder funding — state and local grants, law enforcement funding, and high-threat urban area grants — into one big pot. It would then apply a sliding scale minimum to the pot of money, starting at 0.55% and up to 3% for larger, more populous states. Their formula would guarantee each state at least $9 million in funding for FY 2006.
Urban lawmakers back a proposal that would apply a 0.25% minimum percentage to the same pot of money. That would give each state at least $4 million next year. Certain border and coastal states, including Maine, would receive at least $7.6 million.
The two sides also differ on how to distribute the money. Collins's legislation would direct DHS to give each state its minimum guarantee first, handing out the remaining funding on the basis of risk. The House version says DHS would first determine how much each state should receive based on risk and vulnerability, including threats to the food supply or nuclear power plants in rural areas. If that amount is below the 0.25% minimum, funding would be bumped up to that level.
Collins's formula would distribute 60% of the funding on the basis of risk, according to the Congressional Research Service. The House proposal would allocate nearly 100% on those factors. Rep. Martin Olav Sabo (D-Minn.) has expressed concern with shifting most of the funding from a population-based method to one based on risk and threat, arguing the federal government uses 15 scenarios to determine threat, and only two scenarios are based on natural disasters.
“I wonder how the DHS risk and threat model will assess and treat Michigan, a border state, as compared to North Carolina, a hurricane-prone state,” said Sabo.
The two sides do have common ground on several peripheral issues. They agree that Congress must put more restrictions on how the money is spent to stop communities from wasting the money. The media has reported several incidents where state and local officials used the funds for non-homeland security purchases, such as leather jackets for first responders. They also agree that if federal officials find waste, fraud and abuse, states must return the money to the federal government.
Changes within DHS
Nearly two months before Hurricane Katrina exposed a lack of federal response preparedness, Chertoff decided to reshuffle DHS to focus more resources on preparedness. Congress recently signed off on his changes when it approved the department's FY 2006 spending bill. Bush signed that bill into law in October.
Under the reorganization plan, Chertoff created a new Preparedness Directorate that includes the, the agency that doles out first responder grants and other programs. The secretary also decided to remove FEMA from underneath layers of bureaucracy and have its director report directly to him. FEMA was stripped of its preparedness responsibilities to focus solely on response.
The International Association of Emergency Managers opposes the idea. “Preparedness is what emergency managers do every day in order to be able to respond,” said IAEM President Dewayne West. “The separation of this function seems to be a further dismantling.” The group called on the White House to restore FEMA to its previous status as a stand-alone agency reporting directly to the president.
Chertoff's proposal also called for dissolving the information analysis and infrastructure protection division, which included an initiative to create a nationwide public-alert system. The program has been moved to the Homeland Security Operations Center, which monitors national security events and disasters around the clock and shares information across the federal government and with state and local officials.
Congress gave the department $5 million to begin rolling a national all-hazards alert and warning system via digital television, the Internet, satellite radio, cellular telephones, handheld devices and other technologies. DHS, along with the FCC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this year successfully deployed a digital alert system in the Washington, D.C., region that the agencies would like to deploy nationwide by the end of 2006. The agencies began testing the system in other cities in the fall.
The government is using the satellite of the Public Broadcasting Service and working with commercial broadcasters, satellite radio, the cellular industry, technology developers, pager providers, cable operators and others to transmit various alerts and warnings. The Weather Channel has signed up to receive the department's satellite transmission and plans to use its technology to broadcast homeland security alerts and warnings to specific cities and regions.
In June 2004, NOAA and Homeland Security Department signed an agreement giving department officials access to the NOAA radio network to send all-hazard alerts and warnings. The department also worked with the FCC and its emergency-alert system, which for the last 50 years has given the president the authority to address the nation via commercial broadcasts within 10 minutes and from any location.
Greta Wodele is a homeland security reporter for the National Journal's Congress Daily and Technology Daily.