Washington — Local firefighters, police, paramedics, and emergency room doctors on the front line of homeland security say they are ill-equipped and underfunded when it comes to fighting terrorists.
All want reinforcements and new supplies. Today, firefighting groups will ask Congress for 75,000 additional firefighters nationwide at a cost of $3.2 billion a year, plus $1 billion a year for new equipment. On Wednesday, health, water and emergency management officials said they too needed more federal help. Water plants alone want $5 billion.
Currently, less than five cents of every dollar the federal government spends on domestic counterterrorism goes to these state and local first-responders to attack, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. The center found that less than $400 million of the roughly $9 billion the federal government spent on counterterrorism in the last fiscal year went to local "first responders."
Most went to federal law enforcement, intelligence and national security agencies.
But it's local firefighters, police, and paramedics whose responses make the difference "between life and death," Dr. Kathryn Brinsfield, training director for Boston's emergency medical services, told a House Commerce oversight subcommittee Wednesday.
"It's time that the federal government recognizes that," Garry Briese, executive director of the Fairfax, Va.-based International Association of Fire Chiefs, said in an interview.
The federal government responds well to disasters, said former Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt. But it takes 12 to 14 hours for federal help to arrive, he continued, and local rescue workers are on their own until then.
"We need to do more," Bruce Baughman, FEMA's director of planning and readiness, told lawmakers.
Added Las Vegas emergency management chief Bob Andrews, president-elect of the International Association of Emergency Managers: "We don't have the luxury of waiting for Congress to move. We've got to be better prepared for tomorrow, possibly."
The General Accounting Office, Congress's watchdog arm, reported Wednesday that 255 local governments and all 50 states have received or are scheduled to receive some kind of training for terror attacks. But "even those cities receiving federal aid are still not adequately prepared," the GAO concluded.
Last year, FEMA started a $100 million all-purpose grant program for fire departments that many firefighters used to buy emergency response equipment and training. Fire chiefs want to increase that to $1 billion a year for five years.
In addition to asking Congress for 75,000 more firefighters, fire chiefs want expanded urban search and rescue programs, more medical response teams, and better tracking of the transportation of hazardous materials.
They also want new long-duration protective masks for use in chemical and biological attacks. The military has used them for three years but the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has yet to approve them for civilians.
Local hospitals and health agencies also need more training, money and coordination to deal with terrorism, seven experts told a House Commerce oversight subcommittee Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the American Public Health Association delivered the same message to a Senate panel: Only half of the 50 states have epidemic intelligence officers who specialize in tracking disease outbreaks.