Stressed Responders

Federal disaster money doesn't help much unless governments get together on how to use it.
January 2006
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

When it comes to homeland security and disaster preparedness and response, the current buzzwords are "coordination," "cooperation" and "interoperability."

Actually, those have pretty much been the buzzwords for the past two decades, born of hard experience: That is, discovering in the midst of a crisis that police can't talk to firefighters, who can't talk to emergency medical personnel, who can't talk to state fish and wildlife or forestry people, or any feds whatsoever. Or--even more basic-- discovering in the midst of a disaster that one fire company's hose couplings don't connect up to those of a neighboring jurisdiction.

And so the country is now engaged in a often-ignored but crucial debate: How do you distribute federal grant money for homeland security in a way that avoids fragmentation and encourages cooperation?

Localities have long argued that because they bear the initial brunt of emergency response, they are entitled to more control over how federal money is spent. The U.S. Conference of Mayors argues that Congress should ditch the current "state-based system for distribution of federal first responder assistance" and hand the money directly to local governments. State officials respond that the money has to be distributed to localities in ways that will ensure coordination and reduce duplication, and that states are the only ones who play that role.

In fact, the argument goes far beyond the issue of homeland security. Control of federal grant money has been a point of contention between states and localities ever since the invention of federal aid, whether the money is for economic development, environmental protection or social services. Locals always argue their status as the providers of first resort; states always argue that flinging money at disparate localities virtually guarantees a fragmented system.

Which is why a third approach is worth considering as the emergency response debate heats up. It is an approach supported by a growing cadre of emergency response officials who are actually serious about cooperation, coordination and interoperability. They argue that all significant disasters are, in fact, not local in nature but regional. Therefore, they say, any solid preparedness and response plan should not be organized along local lines but by region, taking in multiple localities and states.

One of the more dogged proponents of this third way is James H. Schwartz, chief of the Fire Department in Arlington County, Virginia. Schwartz was incident commander at the Pentagon on 9/11, and his agency's response on that day is now widely considered a model of rapid and effective intergovernmental action.

Schwartz doesn't argue that states should be stripped of their role as keeper of the purse strings. Rather, he says, states should leverage federal money to move entrenched local interests out of their compartmentalized worlds. Emergency response regions should be designated, and all players within those regions brought together--law enforcement, fire, EMS, health, housing and social services--to figure out what threats the region might be vulnerable to. Inter-agency teams would then develop plans for responding to such threats.

In fact, there's an existing model for how to do this. It is the Metropolitan Medical Response System, created to pull together all the groups that would be required to step up in the event of a biological, chemical or radiological incident. It is administered by the Department of Homeland Security and operates in 124 metropolitan areas. Under MMRS, everyone from cops to doctors can be included in response plans.

"I've always said that I don't want any more money," says Arlington's Schwartz. "What I want is that the money we do have be spent more carefully and according to a system that's created by a meaningful conversation among all levels of government."

It's amazing that such a common-sense approach to a crucial area of public policy doesn't come naturally to those in charge of emergency response money. But it's not too late to force the issue. The conversation that Schwartz advocates is long overdue.