Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., blamed Congress, U.S. foreign policy and intelligence failures, as well as federal agencies that don''t share data, for failing to anticipate and help local government respond appropriately to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Weldon also promised local responders hundreds of millions of new federal dollars to help them prepare for future emergencies.
At EPA''s biannual Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Prevention (CEPP) Conference, held Dec. 9-13 in Baltimore, Weldon, as well as EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, called for greater co-ordination among all branches and levels of local, state, and federal government in emergency planning.
The CEPP Conference, attended this year by more than 1,600 rescue personnel, community leaders and international representatives, has grown in significance in light of the recent terrorist attacks. Several sessions are dedicated to analyzing lessons learned and first hand accounts from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"Both Congress and the administration failed to take steps to protect the American people, and let me tell you folks, we haven''t learned all the lessons yet," said Weldon during the CEPP Conference''s Dec. 11 general session.
Speaking to attendees the day before, Whitman used more diplomatic language, but both government leaders emphasized that preparing for possible future terrorist environmental emergencies has provoked acute new challenges for government.
"We must make a renewed commitment to make emergency planning and response a coordinated effort that involves local, state, and federal partners working hand-in-hand," said Whitman.
Weldon, a former firefighter who now chairs the House Subcommittee on Military Readiness, complained he had tried for years without success to get Congress or recent administrations to:
- Send more money to local responders so they can buy personal protective equipment and improve communication capabilities;
- Allocate more radio frequencies to local responders;
- Offer to local responders technology used by the U.S. military, such as thermal imagers;
- Integrate the non-compatible "stove-piped" data systems of federal agencies so they can share data on suspected terrorists;
- Allow intelligence agencies to hire those who may have been guilty of human rights abuses.
Weldon and other speakers made the point that in the early stages of the response to terrorism, many officials thought the federal government could handle everything.
The need for local-federal partnerships was underscored by a presentation following Weldon''s, during which an FBI special agent shared the stage with a local Baltimore "HAZMAT" responder. The two men explained how crucial it is for local, state and federal workers to establish personal relationships before disaster strikes.
Weldon repeated to conference attendees a statement he said he made to CNN on Sept. 11: "Today the American government has let down the American people."
But Weldon also promised that help for local responders, in the form of a huge new infusion of federal dollars, is on the way.
(This article is the first in a two-part series. Tomorrow: Congressman says federal support for local responders to rise from $30 million to $900 million annually.)
by James Nash