June 23, 2003

By Jason Peckenpaugh
jpeckenpaugh@govexec.com
Federal agencies that provide grants to first responders in state and local governments would be required to streamline their application processes for federal aid under legislation sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.


Collins’ bill, S. 1245, would move two key first responder grant programs into the Office of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and create an interagency committee to standardize the paperwork required by various federal grant programs. The committee would eliminate redundancies among first responder grant programs, which are spread across several agencies. While the Office of Domestic Preparedness is the lead Homeland Security agency for dispensing aid, states also receive grants from the Health and Human Services Department for bioterrorism preparedness. The Environmental Protection Agency offers grants to secure water treatment facilities.


“There are some distinct differences, but the HHS grant programs and ODP grant programs do overlap,” said a staffer on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. “Basically what our bill seeks to do is better coordinate [the programs] in terms of administration and planning.”


The committee would include representatives from all the agencies that dispense first responder grants. It would have 150 days to come up with recommendations for streamlining first responder grants across federal agencies. These requirements should help the committee avoid the fate of the National Domestic Preparedness Office, an FBI office that unsuccessfully tried to streamline first responder programs in the late 1990s, according to the staffer.


“The language that we put in the bill gives some very clear direction on what the committee needs to do,” he said.


The bill also moves the Office of Domestic Preparedness out of the Border and Transportation Security Directorate and into the Office for State and Local Government Coordination within Ridge’s office. Ridge said at a May 1 Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing that the Bush administration supports this move.


The Office for State and Local Government Coordination also would assume administration of the FIRE grants program, which would move out of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under Collins’ bill. The FIRE program would continue to award grants directly to fire departments, a top priority of associations representing firefighters.


“Your explicit language should ease any remaining doubts as to whether the FIRE Act will be run in exactly the same manner as FEMA,” wrote Harold Shaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, in a June 9 letter to Collins.


Collins’ bill also has support from the National Governors Association, National Association of Counties, Council of State Governments and National Conference of State Legislatures, according to letters provided by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.


The legislation builds on three other homeland security bills introduced this spring by Collins, the chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee: S. 796, S. 838, and S. 1073. It has nine co-sponsors, including Governmental Affairs ranking member and Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.