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Don't Play Politics with Responder Funding

by Dan Shipp, president, International Safety Equipment Association

As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security begins its second year of existence, funding to train and equip emergency responders is becoming a major political and public issue.

The administration's proposed FY2005 budget provides $3.6 billion for emergency responder funding, down from $4.4 billion in FY2004. The funding levels caused an immediate outcry. Democrats jumped on the administration for cutting grants to responders. Chairwoman Susan Collins ( RMaine) of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee called the responder funding in the president's proposed budget “shortsighted,” and led an effort to try to restore $1.7 billion in funding for port security and responder grant programs.

In the House, the first major piece of legislation to come out of the Homeland Security committee was a bill to change the way responder funds are allocated, moving from population-based to risk-based formulas. Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Conn.) says that funds should go where the threat is the greatest, but there is still strong sentiment to preserve some minimum level of funding for each state.

While Congress argues about what is getting funded and how many dollars are being spent, there's concern at the other end of the pipeline that the money is not getting to its intended destination. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge acknowledged that nearly $9 billion in homeland security funds from the last three fiscal years has still not reached city and county responders. It's tied up at the state level, where officials are trying to get organized, draft both a homeland security plan and a spending plan to implement the homeland security plan, and evaluate funding requests. Some states do this well. Others are less experienced, and struggling. But the development of homeland security and spending plans are lengthy projects, sometimes involving discussion between fire, police and EMS about what needs are greatest. The logjam is severe enough that a special DHS task force has been appointed, chaired by Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, to try to find the source and break it loose. The 20-member group of state and local officials is going to focus on the unspent $9 billion, and try to identify and eliminate the clogs in the system.

The debate over funding would ordinarily occupy the attention of public officials, responder agencies and their representative organizations, and the resolution would be noticed in occasional news releases from members of Congress applauding the award of grant money. But this is an election year, and terrorism is going to be a big election issue, so responder funding will get its share of political rhetoric.

National candidates will try to surround themselves with firefighters and police officers in public appearances, and issue statements about what they have done to ensure funding for responders and how the opposition party would strip these brave men and women of the protection they need in the face of danger. Mayors and county administrators will blame the states for not getting funding to them, and the federal government for relying on the states in the first place. Governors will say they need more time, more resources and more cooperation from federal and local officials.

At the end of the line are police, fire and emergency medical services personnel, many of whom lack the protective equipment they need for everyday emergencies, not to mention the new threats posed by terrorism. If they hear politicians and pundits talking about billions of dollars in grant money, but don't see any of it coming their way, they are going to question the process, and the commitment of public officials provide money to outfit and train them.

Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, whatever happens in Congress or the state governments, it is vitally important to ensure that emergency responders have access to the best technology available for protection, detection and communications. Let's make sure that message gets across to our political leadership at every level of government.

ISEA staff and members meet regularly with federal, state and local officials and representatives of responder agencies and organizations. We represent protective equipment manufacturers, but by extension we are working on behalf of all the men and women who wear, carry and use our members' products. What are your major concerns? Contact ISEA public affairs director Dan Glucksman ([email protected]) and let him know.

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