Needs of the home front

March 21, 2003

THOUSANDS of miles from Iraq, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is thundering about the needs of the home front. On television, radio and the Internet, he is browbeating decision-makers in Washington. His aim: securing long-promised funding for local governments that already have spent millions on homeland security.

He is right. The failure of Congress to provide an anticipated $3.5 billion in additional funding for local safety efforts is taxing the home front.

Baltimore City alone has spent more than $12.5 million of its own money to combat the threat of terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. O'Malley is speaking not only for Baltimore and Maryland. As the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' homeland security task force, he is lobbying for local governments throughout the nation. They reportedly have spent several billion dollars on increased security since 9/11.

The war in Iraq has heightened cities' safety precautions. For the first time since the scary days after Pearl Harbor, a veritable home front has evolved. No one is clear about what threat to expect, but unprecedented vigilance is being advocated everywhere.

Maryland is no exception: Heavy trucks are routinely stopped for searches, hospitals have been told to be on guard against bioterrorism, strategic sites are in a high state of alert from the Baltimore harbor to a nuclear power station in Southern Maryland.

In his advocacy role for the nation's mayors, Mr. O'Malley will be highly visible in the next few days. His message is that any multibillion-dollar war budget that President Bush sends to Congress should include adequate funds for stepped-up activity by "our police, fire and EMS first responders who are protecting us on the home front."

Since 9/11, Maryland steadily has been improving its ability to deal with terrorism. There have been realistic exercises to test that readiness. Nevertheless, critical weaknesses persist.

Among them are the inability of Baltimore County, Baltimore City and the Maryland State Police to communicate on a single radio system. Also, many police departments lack sufficient tools for coping with a disaster, such as equipment to detect radiation.

Such deficiencies could have adverse consequences in a regional emergency. That's why aid is needed from Washington -- and quickly.

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