Lots Of Talk, But Little Help For First Responders

In the nine months since the terrorist attacks of last September, there has been much talk, a lot of media attention and many proposals on what has to be done to prepare the nation's fire-rescue forces to face the threat of terrorism. But for all the noise and good intentions, there is very little to show. In firehouses across the country, the first responders are not much better prepared than they were on Sept. 11.

Don't misunderstand; the Homeland Security program has not been sidetracked. It is moving forward, with Congress and the Bush administration committed to providing the money and resources that are needed for the domestic side of the war on terrorism. Eventually, federal aid will start trickling down to local fire departments, but the process is painfully slow. Everyone we interviewed for this column - from government officials to fire officers - expressed their fear that it won't get there in time for the next terrorist attack. "It's going to take another major incident to get things moving," was an oft-heard warning.

Here's a brief update on where things stand: The $35 billion for homeland security - which is part of next year's $2.13 trillion budget - is caught up in the annual political battle between Congress and the White House. It includes $3.5 billion that has been earmarked to aid first responders and nothing can happen on that front until Congress finally passes a budget that is acceptable to the President. That's unlikely to happen until the fall and last month there was talk on Capitol Hill of coming up with $100 million or $200 million for first responders as part of a larger emergency supplemental appropriation so that some money can start flowing this year.

That would be nice, but experience teaches that firefighters don't do very well in getting a piece of the emergency appropriations - especially when they have to compete against the police for a slice of the same pie. You may recall that $40 billion was allocated immediately after Sept. 11, but most of it went to the military, or for disaster relief in New York or airport security, or to help save the airlines from financial ruin. A news story related how one state that got some money used it to buy new cars and equipment for the state police. Local fire departments didn't get anything and this is one reason why the fire-rescue service doesn't trust the plan to distribute Homeland Security funds through the governors.

It's also a reason why fire organizations want the FIRE Act to be kept separate and administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which distributes the money directly to fire departments that have been awarded grants. The latest word is that the Democratic Senate may appropriate the full $900 million authorized for next year, but the House Republicans intend to trim it to $400 million. It will be a test to see if all the admiration and support for firefighters is real or just a lot of hot air. As previously reported, top administration officials have publicly stated that they favor keeping the FIRE Act and Homeland Security as two separate programs, but behind the scenes, the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) hasn't given up on trying to combine them into one. Someone, perhaps President Bush himself, has to has to tell OMB to lay off the FIRE Act.

In recent weeks, there has been growing criticism of the Office of Homeland Security's effort to coordinate the many federal agencies that are involved in the defense against terrorism. Many in Congress and inside the administration believe that the office cannot be effective until Director Tom Ridge is given the full power of a Cabinet-level secretary. They insist that someone has to have the authority to force all of these agencies to share information, cooperate with each other and, in the end, take orders from a strong boss.

Ridge and his senior staff have been using a "collegial" approach to bring the various agencies together to air their differences and work out compromises that resolve wasteful duplication and jurisdictional conflicts. It's a new concept that's never been tried in Washington and staff members say it's working, but admit that it can be a slow and tortuous procedure. They believe their role and the chain of command will become a lot clearer when Homeland Security's long-awaited master plant for the defense against domestic terrorism is presented to the President at the end of this month.

Many observers are less optimistic and say that Washington has gone back to "business as usual" with each agency jealously protecting its own turf and trying to grab as much money and power as it can get its hand on. "Collegiality is fine, but what's really needed is someone who has the authority to knock their heads together," says one administration official. He predicts that Ridge will have to be elevated to a Cabinet-level officer.

There also has been a running feud between the Senate's Democratic leaders and the White House because Ridge, as a presidential appointee, does not have to testify before congressional committees. He has briefed members of Congress privately, but it's not the same as answering questions under oath at a public hearing, which is what cabinet secretaries are required to do.

Meanwhile, down at the firehouse level, there have been only minor improvements - a small amount of new equipment and protective clothing, a few additional drills and training exercises. No department that we know of has hired additional firefighters to strengthen their under-staffed companies. Local officials are still squeezing fire department budgets to save money, as if Sept. 11 never happened. One chief officer describes a feeling of "weariness" since the anthrax scare, which revealed weaknesses in the fire and emergency medical response to bio-chemical incidents. Some have been corrected, but no fire department has the capacity to handle a massive biological or chemical attack.

There is an uneasy sense that something bad is likely to happen. Another veteran chief points out that "the money is not getting to where it has to go ... the farther away we are from 9-11, the less important it seems to be." It's a depressing thought, but maybe they're right when they say it will take another disaster to restore a sense of urgency and get things going at a faster pace.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.