Find funds for our `first responders'

February 17, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - While Americans are scurrying to hardware stores in search of duct tape, plastic sheeting and other essentials of the age of terrorism, Congress has only now gotten around to freeing up about $3.5 billion in aid to local "first responders" around the country.

These are the firefighters, police and public health workers who were on the firing line on Sept. 11, 2001, and will be once more, if and when the terrorists strike again.

The bulk of the money was held up for nearly 16 months as a result of budgetary wrangling between the parties. When Republicans offered their plan to lump together 22 agencies into the new Department of Homeland Security, Democrats balked, arguing that federal workers' civil service protections were threatened.

While the Bush administration focused on the bureaucratic task of creating the greatest federal umbrella organization since the establishment of the Defense Department, the first responders had to wait for the equipment and training they need to protect themselves against the new threats the administration says are coming.

Harold Schaitberger is president of the International Association of Firefighters, with a membership of 260,000, serving about 80 percent of the population. He says the delay "comes down to one word: politics." Money to localities, he says, was stalled by "the effort to work out the bureaucratic difficulty of merging 22 separate agencies" into the new department. The funds for the first responders should have been approved and dispatched first, he says, before tackling the complicated revamping.

James Shannon, a former Massachusetts congressman who is now president of the National Fire Protection Association, agrees. "It's been very frustrating that while everybody in Washington is talking about the imminent threat," he says, "there has been so much difficulty getting the wheels turning."

Mr. Shannon cites a recent study by his nonprofit organization indicating "only one in 10 fire departments in the country has the ability to respond to collapsing buildings housing more than 50 people." The firefighters, he says, are more than willing to take on the greater responsibilities of the times, "but they can't do it on fumes."

Mayor Martin O'Malley of Baltimore, a prominent Democratic voice in the matter, says the priority given to merging old agencies into the new Homeland Security Department was "a huge distraction," and the early plans for funneling funds through the state governors caused further delays. Of $11 million spent by Baltimore on homeland security since Sept. 11, he says, only $1 million has come from the federal government.

Meanwhile, five Democratic senators, led by Charles Schumer of New York, say the administration has reduced by $4.4 billion the homeland security funds the Democrats were pushing last year when they controlled the Senate, including $150 million less for the firefighters. "After cutting funds for first responders ... what do they propose?" Mr. Schumer says. "That Americans fortify their own homes with duct tape and plastic sheets."

The lack of equipment and training on the domestic front is only part of the problem, as the rush for purchasing such do-it-yourself supplies demonstrates. Many citizens seem perplexed about personal protection as a debate grows on what will and will not work.

The new department, a spokesman says, has put on the Internet a three-point advisory: 1) assemble emergency supply kits; 2) develop a family communications plan; 3) learn more about the specific threats faced, such as chemical and biological. If you don't have access to the Internet, he says, the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have their own help lines.

Before learning all this, and worried about protecting my own family, I tried to call the new department directly. I phoned 411, only to be told that there is no listing for it. Why not? I asked. "The government hasn't given it to us yet," a phone supervisor said. "If they don't give us a number, we can't list it. Would you like the Department of Defense?"

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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