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Archive for Sunday, July 6, 2003

U.S. first responders woefully underfunded

July 6, 2003

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We have been warned. Our country remains woefully unprepared to cope with another terrorist assault.

The warning comes not from some paranoid characters on the political fringe, but from a sober set of experienced government officials -- one of whom, at least, was prescient about the dangers most of us discovered only when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked.

He is Warren Rudman, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire, who, with former Democratic Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, issued a report seven months before 9-11 describing domestic terrorism as the primary national security threat and saying, "The United States is today very poorly organized to design and implement any comprehensive strategy to protect the homeland."

Among other things, they recommended creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security -- a step that President Bush finally took nine days after the attack. Now, as head of a Council on Foreign Relations task force that includes, among others, a former national security aide to three presidents and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Rudman is back warning that "the United States remains dangerously ill-prepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil."

The focus of this latest report is the lag in equipping the "first responders" -- police, firefighters and medical personnel -- with the tools they would need if another attack comes.

Rudman's latest report drew a good deal of press and TV attention, but -- in the way that happens too often in Washington -- what should have been a serious discussion got sidetracked into a petty-sounding dispute. Attempting to quantify the needs on the basis of what it acknowledged to be shaky estimates, the task force said that the $27 billion now in the federal budget for emergency responders over the next five years might have to be boosted by $98 billion to reach an adequate level.

The Homeland Security Department's spokesman, treating it as a knock on his bosses, called the $98 billion figure "grossly inflated," and that argument shaped many of the stories.

In fact, as Rudman said in an interview, the report was aimed "at Congress, every bit as much as the administration." Many of the problems the task force identified -- not just funding but policy -- can be addressed only by the lawmakers.

No one has seriously challenged the findings, based on field surveys and testimony by the first responders and their professional organizations, that there are large gaps to be filled. Few police or fire departments have enough radios and communications equipment, biological testing devices, breathing aids, or protective garments to deal with a major disaster. Hospitals are inadequately prepared for a massive influx of injured patients.

As Rudman says, "The Pentagon would not send soldiers and Marines into Iraq without all the protective equipment and communications gear they need. But we are routinely asking the first responders to run those risks."

No one can say with precision what it would cost to train and equip first responders adequately, because we have no standard measure of adequacy. The real plea of the task force is that Congress mandate -- and the department create -- a set of standards that cities and states can use to measure how far they have come, and how far they have to go, to be prepared.

The department has started on that process, but its mandate is not clear -- in part because Congress has not organized itself to give clear policy directives.

The House, for example, has created a Select Committee on Homeland Defense, but it is slated to go out of existence at the end of next year. Rudman's task force says it should be made permanent, but personal and jurisdictional disputes -- turf fights, really -- with older committees leave that in doubt. So the department is trying to serve many congressional masters.

Another task force recommendation -- one that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge shares -- is that the distribution formula for federal funds should be changed. Under the current formula, the federal government is putting $10 per capita into Wyoming compared with $1.40 per capita for New York. With pressing needs and limited resources, more realistic priorities have to be set, so the places with dense populations, strategic targets and landmark buildings will get the protection they need.

But it's also clear that more funds are required. And here political reality intrudes. Last month, in the House Appropriations Committee and later on the House floor, Republicans rejected a Democratic amendment to add $1 billion for homeland defense, paid for by trimming a piece of the recently enacted tax break for 200,000 millionaires from $88,000 each to $83,000.

Talk about misplaced priorities!

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