The September 11, 2001, attacks drew immediate attention to the key role of our “first responders” — the police, firefighters and emergency medical teams who are the first on any crisis scene.
Subsequently, the nation’s attention has also focused on the deficiencies in information sharing within our federal government, notably the FBI, CIA and other intelligence community agencies.
These two crucial elements of homeland security are inextricably linked, because information about an attack that reaches the front lines of local authorities could potentially reduce its impact if not stop it entirely.
In the two years since the September 11 attacks, the focus on first responders has increased awareness that federal money isn’t reaching them where it is needed. But while much of the discussion has focused simplistically on calls for ever-higher spending, an even greater problem is that information gathered by counterterrorism experts at significant taxpayer expense is ignored in the disbursement process.
The present grant system for first responders is similar to the one the federal government uses for paving roads and responding to mudslides. Political formulas based on parity and population, rather than intelligence on terrorist plans and intentions, determines where the billions go. Such an archaic approach to the challenges of international terrorism courts disaster.
In Washington, once it became clear important first responder needs were going begging, the usual political blame game soon commenced. The politically expedient course was to demand that the Department of Homeland Security use the dozens of existing funding formulas it had inherited from the 22 agencies that were folded into DHS. Complicated and eccentric as these formulas might be, they were built by the political class to meet political needs: Thus the grant formula for fighting fires now serves double duty for homeland security. But this and other such formulas have nothing to do with objective measurements of the relative risks of attack.
Inserting intelligence into the equation for our emergency responders is an area where Congress — and the Select Committee on Homeland Security, which I chair — can and should exert its influence.
If you are to be protected against the next terrorist attack, local police, firefighters and emergency technicians must be prepared as never before. They must have equipment and training to respond to a variety of new threats, as well as to more traditional emergencies.
All sides agree this takes money. And Congress has responded. Since that terrible day in September two years ago, Congress has spent more than $20 billion on first responders — an increase of more than 1,000 percent. Even for Washington, this is an incredible amount of money.
But the involvement of such large sums only accentuates the importance of spending wisely. That means all funds should be disbursed on the basis of hard-nosed threat assessment. However, current federal funding for first responders is parceled out among the states with a guaranteed minimum for every state (presumably, because every state has two senators). One obvious distortion is that California receives less than $5 per person in first responder grants, while Wyoming receives more than $35. The same result obtains in other large states, including New York.
Equally unjustifiable, however, is that with rare exception the rest of the funds are allocated only according to population. While larger population concentrations may indeed be terror targets, this is a very unsophisticated approach to what should be an intelligence-driven process.
Small-population farm states such as Iowa can legitimately claim attention because of their responsibilities for the nation’s food supply. Regions such as Alaska and Wyoming that have few people are thick with defense assets, energy and other productive infrastructure. Sorting out these competing claims must be achieved through rigorous threat assessment, not political tradeoffs.
Just as rickety as the funding formulas, and just as much in need of reform, is the grant application process for first responder monies. Currently, applicants are forced to follow a convoluted 12-step process to receive a portion of the money Congress has already made available. Localities wait months to be reimbursed for funds they have already been forced to spend by federal mandate. This outdated grant system results in delays and funding distortions that do nothing but exacerbate the risks we face.
Expending extravagantly to purchase items we don’t need in places that don’t need them most is not “homeland security.” It does not protect those most at risk. Sound threat assessment must be the basis in determining how to prioritize our first responder grant assistance.
Here’s how it would work: States, as well as multistate and intrastate regions, would determine their vulnerabilities on an ongoing basis. Simultaneously, the federal government would complete and constantly update its national vulnerability assessment.
States (and regions that develop their own homeland security first responder plans) would be able to apply directly to the department to meet their specific regional needs. The department would match the state and local vulnerability assessments against all the federal government knows about our terrorist enemies and our national vulnerabilities. Federal first responder grant assistance would flow to where the risk is greatest.
With the Homeland Security Act, Congress and President Bush took prompt and definitive action to break down legal and cultural barriers to information sharing. Now, the FBI, CIA and dozens of other federal, state and local intelligence and law enforcement agencies are sharing data on terrorists and their plans. This is a good start. The grant-making process for our first responders deserves equally decisive action.
And let’s be clear. Our enemies have no political two-stepping to perform. There is no confusion on their end. They are focused on one objective only — to inflict fear and panic on our citizens, kill our loved ones, destroy our economy and our way of life.
This is no overstatement; there is no need for drama. We can and we must start to make sense of the way we fund our first responders — the men and women upon whom we all may one day rely for our lives — if we are to prevail in the war on terror.
Christopher Cox, California Republican, is chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Homeland Security.