Promised Federal Aid Slow To Reach Fire Departments

March 1, 2004
From the very beginning, fire service leaders and local government officials warned that funneling federal anti-terrorism funds to the cities by way of the state capitols was a bad idea. Based on past experience in dealing with their state governments, they knew it would be a bureaucratic nightmare, a slow and complicated process in which local jurisdictions would have little influence on how the money should be allocated and what the priorities should be. Sadly, it seems as if their worst fears have been realized.

In the year since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created, the flow of federal aid to fire departments and other first responders has been a trickle rather than the stream that was promised and hoped for. According to a survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 76% of the cities have not received any money from the largest program aimed at helping local fire, police ad EMS prepare for terrorist attacks. This is the Federal First Responder/Critical Infrastructure program and it’s supposed to provide $1.5 billion to be used for equipment, training, exercises and planning.

The survey of 215 cities was taken in December and, as bad as it seems, it actually is an improvement over a similar study conducted five months earlier when 90% of the cities reported that they had not received any help from the program. In a statement accompanying the report, Mayor James A. Garner, of Hempstead, NY, chairman of the Conference, declared: “This is completely unacceptable … This report is a national call for improving the system.”

Along with not getting the money, 59% of the local officials surveyed complained that they had little or no input with DHS or their state or county governments in determining how the funds will be allocated and how they should be used at the local level. “All major decisions are made by state officials,” was the typical comment from a suburban mayor. A small-town official said: “The state works with the counties and the cities are left out.” And, an official from one of the nation’s largest cities complained: “Eligible spending criteria were pre-determined without input from our jurisdiction.” That’s just a small sample of angry comments from dozens of local officials quoted in the Mayors’ report. Whether they represent small towns, suburbs or big cities, all tell the same story of having no influence in planning their anti-terrorism defense.

When asked to comment on the report, a spokesperson for DHS provided a fact sheet pointing out that DHS has awarded more than $8 billion in grants to the states and territories during its first year of existence. This includes $4.26 billion as part of the State Homeland Security grant program, in which states are entitled to keep 20% with 80% distributed by the states to local jurisdictions. Also included is an additional $1.5 billion allocated to 50 large urban areas that are considered prime targets for terrorists and $325 million to help local governments pay the overtime costs for additional security measures taken during the Code Orange alerts.

There’s no reason to doubt that DHS is shoveling the money out of Washington. The question is what happens to it after it gets to the state capitols? That’s where the bottleneck seems to be – as everyone knew it would be. Ten years ago, after Oklahoma City and the first World Trade Center bombing, fire chiefs began pleading for federal anti-terrorism aid to be sent directly to the cities. The fire-rescue service insisted that the successful FIRE Act program distribute its grants directly to fire departments, without having to go through middlemen at the state level. And, that’s why the mayors and other local government organizations joined the fire chiefs in calling for homeland security funds to go directly to the cities. They knew from bitter experience that money has a way of getting delayed, diverted or diluted whenever state government gets its hands on a large bundle.

But the Bush administration and DHS ignored their warnings and insisted that all homeland security funds had to go through the states and there is no reason to believe they are going to change their position. “We’re not going to write checks to mayors,” is the way a senior DHS official bluntly put it. Nevertheless, the U.S. Conference of Mayors intends to use the report in an attempt to get Congress and DHS to “improve the system.” Their effort deserves all the support it can get but, realistically, there is not much hope that the process is going to be drastically changed. It’s too late and too much of a political issue; the flow of federal anti-terrorism funds will continue to be a thin trickle through the state government bottleneck.

The only way it can change is to bring pressure from the bottom up. Instead of pleading with Washington to fix the problem, the place to break the logjam is at the state capitols. The cities have every right – and a desperate need – to bring all the pressure they can muster on their governors, legislatures and state bureaucracies to start acting as if there is an emergency instead of doing business as usual in the same old foot-dragging ways. When terrorists strike, it’s the mayors and their fire, police and EMS forces that have to respond – not the governors and the statehouse bureaucrats who are sitting on the money.

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.

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