First responders are a crucial link in any effective homeland security policy. To meet the demands of the terrorist threat, a major investment is necessary to train and equip police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and the public health community.
Last year, President George W. Bush proposed the First Responder Initiative to meet the needs of this vital community.1 However, Congress has greatly weakened this important proposal in recent months by misallocating most of the funds intended for the program and repeatedly limiting the reforms necessary for the program to achieve maximum success.
Now a new debate is emerging over whether or not funding levels should be increased to levels dramatically higher than the President's proposal. However, any increase at this point would be premature. Instead, Congress should:
- Transfer funds Congress appropriated for law enforcement as part of the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and other programs in the fiscal year (FY) 2003 omnibus budget bill to the Office of Domestic Preparedness in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), consolidating them into one flexible program run by the DHS.
- Require the DHS to re-evaluate the funding level for the consolidated grant program and report to Congress in six months and annually thereafter.
In his FY 2004 budget request, President Bush asked Congress for $3.5 billion in grants for the Department of Homeland Security to deliver to state and local responders. This was the same amount he requested as part of his First Responder Initiative in FY 2003.
However, when Congress passed the omnibus appropriations bill (H.J. Res. 2) on February 13, 2003, the $3.5 billion was divided between $2 billion for domestic preparedness and $1.5 billion to law enforcement as part of established, but underperforming,2 grants managed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for traditional policing purposes. In addition, Congress micromanaged how the domestic preparedness funds could be spent instead of giving Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge the flexibility to meet the varying needs of America's states and cities. This rigidity will dramatically reduce the effectiveness of the funds.
Despite these inefficiencies, and with the ink barely dry on the FY 2003 budget, many in Congress are calling for more. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) recently called for an additional $7.5 billion, while Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-SD) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) argued for another $5 billion.
Nor are members of Congress alone at the feeding trough. Numerous national lobbying organizations have jumped on the "more is better" bandwagon. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) has called for over $3 billion in additional funding, all--predictably--for firefighters. In fact, most of the IAFF's request would be earmarked to hire new firefighters. Other interest groups have forged similar requests. For example, the National League of Cities has requested an additional $7 billion, and the National Conference of State Legislatures is seeking an increase of $9 billion.
While meeting the needs of first responders is crucial, the federal government cannot fund all of these requests, nor should it. All levels of government must share the responsibility of improving preparedness. States, counties, and cities should bear most of the burden for meeting day-to-day needs such as hiring new staff and procuring basic equipment such as fire trucks and police cruisers.
The federal government's role should be primarily to promote a holistic approach to domestic preparedness through planning, training, and procurement designed to improve responders' abilities to respond to all hazards, whether terrorist, natural, or man-made, while promoting interoperabil-ity. The federal government also has a unique role in providing specialized training and equipment necessary for responding to the unique circumstances of some potential terrorist incidents, particularly attacks involving weapons of mass destruction.
Even in these areas, however, not every locality should receive funding for every kind of training and every type of specialized equipment. Instead, the Administration should focus on promoting mutual assistance agreements and interoperability so that localities can pool their specialized resources to provide an effective response without wasting state, local, and federal funds on redundant capabilities.
The President's request for $3.5 billion in first responder grants set a benchmark for evaluating the program's funding levels. While it is difficult to predict how this tenfold increase from pre-9/11 levels will affect the first responder community, one thing is clear: Additional reform of how the government provides domestic preparedness grants to the local level would allow that money to be spent better at the local level.
While Congress has yet to begin working on the FY 2004 request, the $3.5 billion that Congress appropriated for FY 2003 is not the same $3.5 billion President Bush requested. When he delivered his FY 2003 budget to Congress last February, the hallmark of his First Responder Initiative was not the dramatic increase in funding from $300 million to $3.5 billion, but the consolidation of all federal homeland security grants to first responders into one program managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), designed to meet the differing needs of the states receiving those grants. To pay for this initiative, the President proposed eliminating a number of underperforming law enforcement programs such as COPS.3
The First Responder Initiative was a radical proposal because over half a dozen federal agencies maintained grant and training programs designed to teach first responders the necessary skills to respond to terrorism, and the homes of these programs in many cases were determined more by politics than by necessity.4 Indeed, the diversification of first responder assistance programs had become so bad that the third annual report of the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction (the Gilmore Commission), transmitted to the President and Congress in December 2001, noted that it placed a "significant administrative burden" on first responders.5 Similarly, the U.S. General Accounting Office noted in 1999 that multiple programs "were causing frustration and confusion at the local level."6
Despite overwhelming recognition that numerous parallel programs reduced the effectiveness of federal first responder assistance, Congress failed to consolidate these programs. From February to June 2002, Congress did not act on the President's First Responder Initiative. When the President included a revamped version in his first DHS budget, Congress altered it by placing the program in the Border and Transportation Security Directorate in order to appease law enforcement lobbyists who did not want to share the same trough with other first responders. The Directorate's Office of Domestic Preparedness will direct and supervise all terrorism preparedness grants7 except those in the Department of Health and Human Services and will absorb the functions of FEMA's Office of National Preparedness.8
Likewise, when finally passing the FY 2003 budget, a year after the President's initial request, Congress sliced up the funding, allocating the vast majority to fire grants. As a result, of the $3.5 billion Congress appropriated for first responders, only $1 billion was left undedicated to the President's agenda, $1 billion was earmarked for specific purposes, and the remaining $1.5 billion was allocated to COPS and other DOJ programs.
Congress's failure to pass the FY 2003 budget until four months after the end of FY 2002 has delayed the distribution of the President's increase. Combined with an insufficient reform of the grant-giving process, it is too early for a full evaluation of whether $3.5 billion is sufficient to meet the needs of America's first responders. Indeed, the requests of various lobbying groups do not justify the proposed dramatic increases.
While President Bush has shown a commitment to increasing the federal homeland security budget when necessary, he has also demonstrated a commitment to do so prudently. For example, the Administration's Transportation Security Administration budget for FY 2004 includes a reduction of $685 million from FY 2003 because the FY 2003 budget included one-time start-up costs. Congress should also adopt this prudent approach in determining how best to fund first responders.
All federal grants designed to assist first responders in preparing for disasters--terrorist, natural, or man-made--should be consolidated into a single, flexible program in the Department of Homeland Security, which is now the lead agency for the federal response to any incident.9 Secretary Ridge should manage this consolidated grant program through the Office of State and Local Government Coordination (OSLGC), which will have the most direct interaction with local governments. Existing specialized domestic preparedness grants, whether under DHS or other federal agencies, should be eliminated.
The consolidated domestic preparedness grant program should provide assistance to first responders for planning, procuring equipment, and training. However, Congress should not micromanage how much the DHS can spend in each area. Instead, the OSLGC should be free to provide funds based on a state's needs.
In order to receive funds, states should be required to submit an application to the DHS that includes an all-hazards response plan featuring mutual assistance agreements among local communities and promoting interoperability of equipment and procedures. Funds should then be distributed through the state governors' offices consistent with such plans. However, the federal government should require that the majority of funds be transferred expeditiously to the local level.
Congress should direct the DHS's Office of State and Local Government Coordination to evaluate the current $3.5 billion spending level six months after all domestic preparedness grants are consolidated into one program and report to Congress whether or not the needs of America's states and communities are being adequately met and, if not, where the deficiencies are. Since meeting the needs of first responders will require an ongoing commitment, the DHS should repeat this process every year thereafter.
Congress's top priority in supporting first responders should be reforming and consolidating existing, underperforming grant programs to provide the maximum benefit at the least cost. Consolidating existing programs into a flexible grant regime designed to meet the unique needs of the various states while promoting an all-hazards approach, mutual assistance agreements, and interoperability is crucial. Until such reform is enacted and evaluated, Congress should not authorize any increase in grant funds.
Michael Scardaville is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
1. The money the President requested as part of the First Responder Initiative would be used at the local level to develop response plans and equip the local fire, police, and emergency medical service departments and public health agencies with the best equipment and training available. In comparison, during 2000, federal assistance to first responders for homeland security purposes was a paltry $326 million; in 2002, that amount was increased to $942 million. This additional funding has already been used to train approximately 80,000 first responders, while all federal assistance between 1996 and 1999 trained only 134,000.
3. For more on COPS and why it should be eliminated, see David Muhlhausen, "Why the Bush Administration Is Right on the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services," Heritage Foundation Web Memo No. 211, February 19, 2003.
5. Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, Third Annual Report to the President and Congress of the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities of Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, Vol. 3, December 15, 2001, p. 10.