Still unprepared

October 03, 2003|By Jim Turner

FIGHTING AND WINNING the war on terrorism will require strong and sustained efforts overseas and here at home.

To prevent and respond to acts of terrorism against the homeland, our domestic forces -- police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel -- must be fully coordinated and informed of the threats we face, just like our troops around the world fighting al-Qaida.

Unfortunately, the first reports from the frontlines of homeland security show we are not prepared and America remains at risk even though President Bush signed much-needed appropriations -- $29.4 billion -- for the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday.

Independent research organizations have clearly identified the shortfalls in our preparedness efforts. For example, the Council on Foreign Relations' Independent Task Force on Emergency Responders reported June 29 that nearly two years after 9/11, the United States is drastically underfunding local emergency responders and remains dangerously unprepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil.

The report makes clear that two major obstacles hamper America's emergency preparedness efforts. First, it is impossible to know what is needed because we lack a common understanding of the essential capabilities each community needs to respond to a terrorist attack. Second, funding for emergency responders has been sidetracked and stalled because of the slow distribution of funds by federal agencies and bureaucratic red tape at all levels of government.

This bipartisan task force makes clear that we must move faster and more strongly to prepare our communities and protect America. As a nation, we made a commitment to provide the best training and equipment to our military forces. Now we must make the same level of commitment to the men and women who will be the first to respond to the next terrorist attack in America.

The time for comprehensive change to our preparedness programs is now. It is our duty to close the security gaps that remain before our enemies strike again.

The Department of Homeland Security has not worked with state and local governments to determine -- based on defined standards, threats and vulnerabilities -- the essential capabilities our communities need to be prepared for terrorist attacks.

First, we must establish a task force to determine essential capabilities for our first responders and provide clear guidance on the necessary skills and resources required to prevent, prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks. Communities would use this information to create preparedness and response plans.

Second, the first-responder grant system is broken. Current grants do not target the greatest needs, take too long to reach first responders and are overly bureaucratic.

The department should create a terrorism preparedness grant program, based on state and local assessments, to address communities' lack of essential capabilities. The program would focus on supplying first responders with the essential capabilities they require to be prepared. This grant program, with other terrorism-preparedness grant programs, should be streamlined in one office to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

Third, our response personnel cannot talk to each other.

Sept. 11 tragically demonstrated that it is often difficult for police, firefighters and emergency medical workers to talk quickly and effectively with one another during an emergency because their communications equipment is not interoperable. The department must achieve communications interoperability by working with our first responders and industry to provide standards for communication equipment.

Finally, desperately needed threat information is not readily available.

First responders are not receiving timely, actionable intelligence and threat information. The Homeland Security Advisory System is not well understood, and changes to the nationwide threat level are costing cities and states hundreds of millions of dollars.

The department must improve the threat warning system and provide continuous, real-time, actionable information to state and local officials and the general public. First responders and the public need to know how to respond to changes to the threat level, and funding should be provided to states and local governments for associated enhanced security activities.

These security gaps must be addressed immediately, and Congress should act now.

The Council on Foreign Relations' report and the continued call for assistance from first responders should be a wake-up call to the nation. They show that America's security needs are major, that they are not being met and that we must act now. America's enemies will not wait, and neither can we.

We must be united in moving faster and deploying stronger measures to defeat terrorism and protect America.

Jim Turner of Texas is the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.

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