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Security funds bolster communications, gear

Mon., Sept. 11, 2006

In the five years since two jetliners struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center, tens of millions of dollars in Homeland Security funding have poured into the Inland Northwest.

Rural counties purchased radio towers and protective gear. Spokane and Kootenai counties invested in big emergency trucks filled with high-tech communications and safety gear. Hospitals and public health agencies received decontamination equipment, and police officers were trained in rescuing people from collapsed buildings. Training exercises costing tens of thousands of dollars are held each year so “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters can practice for disaster.

It’s a response that emergency officials say has improved the safety of people living in the Inland Northwest. But it’s also one that critics say has become a form of bureaucratic largesse, with a lot of taxpayer money spent for things with a tangential relationship to terrorism in areas that are sparsely populated.

“I think (rural areas) shouldn’t be getting any money, because they’re certainly not high-risk areas,” said Veronique de Rugy, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., who has conducted research and written articles on Homeland Security. “What’s the likelihood of them using it for a terrorist attack? I mean, honestly?”

Emergency officials here say that it’s unfair to assume a terrorist attack could only occur in a major city, and they note the region’s history of domestic terrorism and natural disasters, as well as its location along an international border. They say Homeland Security money prepares them for the possibilities of all such major disasters.

Pend Oreille County Sheriff Jerry Weeks said his county has spent most of its grant funding on improving its communications system. He said it’s not so far-fetched to imagine a terrorist attack in a rural area – especially if that area is left unprotected while cities are heavily fortified.

“Ask the parents and the people who live here if that’s important to them,” he said. “To ignore rural areas or Eastern Washington is foolish.”

‘Thinning out’

The flow of Homeland Security funds is slowing, at least here. Washington’s overall allocation dropped from $60.4 million to $32.2 million in the last three years. In Eastern Washington’s Region 9, which includes Spokane, grant funding went from $5.8 million in 2004 to $2.2 million for fiscal year 2006.

In Idaho, grant funding has dropped from more than $17 million three years ago to $11.8 million for 2006, DHS statistics show.

The change is due in part to a new approach that attempts to send more Homeland Security money to higher-risk areas – a controversial change that ended up reducing grant awards to New York and California. Most of the awards process was conducted in private, and observers say it’s been difficult to tell exactly why that happened.

In any case, emergency officials in the Inland Northwest have seen their grant awards decreasing.

“I knew it was going to happen sooner or later,” said Jay Weise, emergency management coordinator for Adams County. “You just kind of keep gleaning as much as possible to complete your projects, because you know it’s going to dry up at some point.”

The Department of Homeland Security was created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with the mission of coordinating and improving national security. Since it was created, department spending nationwide has nearly tripled, according to a study by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a the fiscally conservative think tank at which de Rugy works.

For fiscal year 2006, total spending on homeland security activities will be at least $49.9 billion – about $450 per household. The money goes to every state in the country. In the last three years, about $170 million in Homeland Security grants has come into Washington and Idaho.

Critics say, in essence, that the program has become a kind of catchall pork barrel program, funneling millions to local jurisdictions for routine law enforcement and emergency needs.

De Rugy said such “thinning out” of federal resources essentially dilutes the country’s overall security against terrorist attacks.

The American Enterprise Institute study she authored noted that in 2004, Idaho got $16.65 for every resident, Washington got $7.22, and New York received $5.41.

Sandy Von Behren, director of the Kootenai County Office of Emergency Management, said she understands why people in major cities might want more federal security funding. But she and other emergency officials said that residents of the Inland Northwest are not immune to major threats – including terrorist threats along the borders, domestic terrorism, large-scale natural disasters like fires, and other major emergencies.

They also said that in cases of national emergencies like 9/11, cops and firefighters from all over the country show up to help and need to be trained.

“If I lived in New York, I would be fighting for more funding,” she said. “However, I live in Kootenai County, and my feeling is, if we put all our resources and funding into major target areas … that it then makes us more vulnerable.”

Communications work

Three new emergency vehicles sit at the Spokane City-County Department of Emergency Management – two devoted to handling bomb threats and a “mobile command vehicle” that can be set up to coordinate response to a major emergency. The vehicle was on standby during the recent busy weekend in Spokane when huge crowds were expected at events such as Skyfest and an Orange County Choppers event at the fairgrounds.

“We try to buy things that could be used on some sort of everyday call,” said Tom Mattern, deputy director of the department.

That means that decontamination suits and tents purchased with Homeland Security dollars are used for routine meth lab busts. A new “heavy rescue” vehicle on its way to Kootenai County may be used to respond to major wrecks on Interstate 90, Fire Chief Kenny Gabriel said.

Local emergency officials acknowledge that they seek Homeland Security grants to serve broader uses than combating terrorism – the grants require spending on equipment and training that would be applicable in a terrorist attack, but that could also be useful in other major emergencies.

“No, we’re not New York City. We’re not Los Angeles,” Gabriel said. “We don’t think they’re going to fly a plane into the (Coeur d’Alene) Resort. But the fact is, to be proactive and mitigate these (threats), we have to look at things differently.”

Homeland Security provides only a portion of the spending on national security after Sept. 11. It doesn’t include such efforts as federal law enforcement agencies and airport security. Spokane International Airport has spent about $10 million on security improvements that were a direct result of Sept. 11, but that money came through Federal Aviation Administration grants, said airport spokesman Todd Woodard.

The main use of Homeland Security money in Washington and Idaho is to improve or replace communications equipment – repeater towers, mobile radios and other equipment that allows police, firefighters and emergency workers to communicate.

In recent national disasters, such as the terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, the difficulties with communications systems have been highlighted – different agencies use different equipment and different frequencies and can’t always communicate quickly.

Von Behren, the director of Kootenai County’s Office of Emergency Management, noted that communications troubles have long bedeviled local agencies as well. Ambulance crews can’t always communicate directly with police officers, for example. Kootenai County is beginning to work on a system of “interoperable communications” – one that would let all emergency workers communicate with one another.

“Everybody hears that it didn’t work in 9/11, it didn’t work in Katrina,” she said. “Well, it didn’t work in Firestorm ‘91, either.”


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