WASHINGTON – The federal government’s “upside-down” policy of directing homeland security funds to states instead of local governments has kept local emergency responders from effectively protecting their communities, a new survey charges.
The survey of 304 agencies in 23 states — including 22 agencies in Maryland — by the Democratic Task Force on Homeland Security found that just 16 percent of respondents felt the federal government is doing all it can to address homeland security needs.
“The funding that we have received has not been timely, it has not been adequate, and it is far from being direct,” said Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, who was on Capitol Hill for the release of the report. O’Malley is also chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Homeland Security Task Force.
But the Federal Emergency Management Agency challenged the findings, noting that the survey is unscientific and reached just a handful of the emergency response agencies in the nation.
“The fact of the matter is that we have made significant increases to first responders,” said Chad Kolton, public affairs director for FEMA.
FEMA has created programs to aid emergency responders across the country, he said. For instance, the Assistance to Firefighters program will make 7,000 grants this year, including $2.2 million so far to 25 Maryland fire departments.
Some Maryland agencies also disagreed with the survey’s findings.
The Montgomery County Police Department has daily updates from the federal government on information regarding terrorism and other security related issues, said Capt. John Fitzgerald. “We know each other on a first-name basis,” he said.
Ron Frye, deputy director of the Allegany County Department of Emergency Services and Communications, said that his agency handles about 90 percent of the problems in the county, but that the federal government is there in times of need, such as in major floods or tornadoes.
But a September survey by Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, of more than 20 emergency response units in his district found many were dissatisfied with the federal response. The 2nd District survey said 76 percent of the agencies that responded did not receive any federal aid for first-responder needs, and together they had spent $24 million of their own money.
“Our priorities are upside down, we need to change our priorities,” Ruppersberger said. “Those priorities need to change because our lives are at stake.”
O’Malley said Baltimore has spent $17 million in city funds and has only received $6 million in federal funds for homeland security since Sept. 11, 2001.
He thinks the federal government needs to do a better job assessing the vulnerability of areas across the country and tallying the needs of first-responders. The lack of national and state assessments of vulnerability has created “anomalies” in the way federal money for homeland security is spent, O’Malley said.
For instance, the city of Baltimore gets about one-tenth the amount of money to combat bioterrorism as the state of North Dakota does — even though the city and the state have about the same population.
O’Malley also said bureaucracy has hindered efficient communication between the federal government and front-line emergency workers.
“The thinking that has dominated this administration on homeland security is that all dollars must flow to the 50 states’ emergency management agencies,” O’Malley said. “That’s created a real bottleneck.”