County Seeks Emergency Guidance

County Seeks Emergency Guidance

After terrorism conference, local officials still looking for firm commitment from feds.

Federal officials pledged their support to local government last Monday. But by the end of a three-day terrorism conference, local officials walked away without any real assurances.

Last week, Arlington played host to representatives from over 900 jurisdictions for a three-day conference, “Local Response to Terrorism: Lessons Learned from the 9-11 Attack on the Pentagon.” The event featured presentations by local emergency response personnel, work sessions for attendees to discuss emergency plans and an opportunity for local first responders to make recommendations to federal Homeland Security officials.

The event went off without a hitch, but local officials were less than satisfied with the end result. “I was largely disappointed in the lack of substance in the federal response,” said Jim Schwartz, who heads Arlington’s Emergency Services team.

Schwartz and other officials from the D.C. region are currently in discussions over how to spend $60 million in federal funds earmarked for the area. A decision is expected within the next 30 days, and could affect how local fire and police officials train and equip their departments.

“Right now we’re struggling with how federal funding that has come to the region is going to be distributed and spent,” said Schwartz. There are “widely divergent” ideas about how that should happen, he said.

SCHWARTZ HOPED FOR a firm commitment that federal agencies would collaborate with local officials, but wouldn’t dominate the planning process. On Monday, July 28, the first day of the conference, it looked like he might get his wish.

In separate speeches, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge praised the experience of local first responders.

The front line of defense sits in local jurisdictions, not in Washington, Ashcroft said. “There is a difference between having your feet on a desk and having your feet on the street.”

Ridge agreed, and called for state officials to develop lists of priorities so that federal funds can match local needs. “For our homeland to be secure, first our hometowns must be secure,” he said.

But by the end of the conference, when local leaders presented their recommendation, federal officials weren’t quite ready to sign on the dotted line, Schwartz said. “I think they listened attentively. One of the things we didn’t get was a lot of commitments.”

AMONG OTHER CONCERNS, local officials from various jurisdictions said they need basic standards for making disaster plans.

“I don’t anticipate a strike coming from the air again, so I just wonder what’s next,” said Robert Turner, public safety director for Indianapolis. “You’ll never know what you’re preparing for.” That means in Indianapolis, law enforcement officials are being retrained to deal with unknown circumstances, Turner said.

That training gets expensive, said Oscar Ortiz, mayor of Port Arthur, Texas. Like Arlington’s officials, Ortiz hoped to hear commitments from the federal government at the conference. “They need to get the majority of that money down to the local cities,” said Ortiz.

Former Arlington police chief Ed Flynn, now serving as the Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety, said one way to do that is to link funding to results. In Massachusetts, Flynn is working to provide grants to local jurisdictions that form mutual aid agreements similar to the ones that help Arlington first responders work with fire and police departments from surrounding jurisdictions.

But it’s not just about money. It’s also a question of who has the expertise to make the right decisions on emergency planning. “I would argue for a partnership,” said Schwartz. “There are a lot of very smart people in the federal government. There are not as many people in the federal government as there are on the local level who have operating experience.”

After the attack on the Pentagon, local teams led rescue and recovery efforts. For many, that’s reason enough to listen to recommendations coming from Arlington. “People have proven that whatever they’re doing here works,” said Dan Scott, an assistant fire chief in Los Angeles County. “Too much time has been spent trying to reinvent the wheel.”