When commercial airliners piloted by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, government leaders pledged a substantial flow of funding to better prepare the nation's first responders. Yet, as the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, local governments working to achieve widespread radio compatibility that is necessary to effectively respond to the nation's emergencies face shrinking federal funds and a thorny bureaucratic grant distribution process.

“For the first time, grants are going away,” said Charles Werner, deputy chief of the Charlottsville, Va., fire department and member of various public-safety communications working groups on local, state and federal levels. “The funding was there after 9/11, but now the government is looking for ways to cut money.”

By some estimates, between $2.5 billion to $5 billion in funds were allocated in fiscal 2004 just for interoperable digital radios built using the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials' Project 25 standard. The exact amount going solely to interoperability projects can't be determined because much of the funding comes in the form of block grants, by which states receive a large lump sum and allocate the funds as they see fit.

However, it's clear that several grants dedicated to interoperability projects for local governments are drying up or are on the chopping block under President George W. Bush's budget request sent to Congress for fiscal 2006. One of the key funds set aside for interoperability, the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Interoperability Program, which doled out $83 million in funds for fiscal 2004, is eliminated under the president's proposed budget. And the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP) — one of the largest sources of funding for public safety — has seen its funding diminish from $3.2 billion in fiscal 2004 to $2.6 billion proposed for 2006.

Many public-safety officials are getting the indication the ODP grants for interoperability will likely dry up as a result of the decreased funding. “The word is that ODP grants are going away because of the ongoing war in Iraq,” said Mike McGannon, manager of wireless systems with Engineering Associates, a P25 network-planning firm. “This may be the last round of ODP grants we see.”

The steadily decreasing funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will result in police, fire and emergency medical services to be under-funded by about $100 billion through 2008, according to a report from the First Response Coalition. This truncated support is in stark contrast to the monies promised by lawmakers in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Commissioner Bill Fox of the Metropolitan Fire Association of New York City.

“Unfortunately, that glowing rhetoric has turned into a bitter reality in which the promised funding is not being delivered,” Fox said.

However, David Boyd, director of the DHS's Project SAFECOM program, which helps coordinate federal, state and local government public-safety interoperability initiatives as well as streamline the grant application process, noted that while grants issued specifically for interoperability are decreasing, total block grants given to state governments are likely making up for the shortfall.

“The bulk of the money out there is block grants that number in the billions of dollars,” he said. “We know a substantial part is going into communications.”

Indeed, a host of interoperability projects have been announced using state block money. In late March, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue announced that Atlanta and surrounding counties had received $23 million in fiscal 2004 and 2005 combined from the DHS for interoperability projects, monies that are distributed by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. In addition, $9.7 million in funding from the DHS's Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program was made available to law-enforcement communities throughout Georgia to install gateway technology in dispatching centers to bridge communications for various jurisdictions.

“Grant money has made a great deal of improvement in communications across the country,” Werner said. “It's not ideal, but we'll never see that.”

Research from the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) found that the majority of cities are using federal funds to build interoperable public-safety communications systems, while a large proportion are using bonds and special fees and/or taxes.

A recent survey conducted by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices found that while interoperability is a top priority for states, obtaining the necessary equipment and technology remains a challenge. Just 22% of states already have developed statewide interoperability systems, while the rest were still in the process of completing such networks. Respondents indicated that additional grant funding would facilitate the acquisition of new technology to enable interoperability.

Part of the problem on the state level is the unwieldy grant distribution process. Every state has its own bureaucratic distribution methodology that often keeps funds from reaching first responders. A June 2004 report from the Homeland Security Advisory Council on State and Local Homeland Security Funds found the following barriers to funding first responders: state procurement procedures, lack of adequate personnel at the state and local levels to administer the grants, regulations requiring the funds be used as reimbursements to cities and a lack of integration in the fund distribution mechanisms.

“States see interoperability as a priority, but what I see at regional committees is that everyone wants a piece,” said McGannon, who added that governments generally struggle with how to distribute the money fairly.

SAFECOM, which already has successfully developed guidelines for federal agencies to follow when they provide grants for interoperability projects, is hoping to wield influence on how states appropriate money, Boyd said. In 2003, SAFECOM developed guidelines to help merge the differing requirements from ODP, COPS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“Although many grants are block grants, we are trying to provide guidance in hopes that states will also use the same guidance when they award the blocks,” Boyd said. “We're already finding that states are using some of the same language and the same materials we are.”

Some members of Congress are pushing for federal money from block grants to be directly allocated to local first responders. But different versions of a first-responder grant-reform bill have come out of the Senate Homeland-Security Committee and the House Homeland-Security Committee, setting up a battle between House and Senate lawmakers.

The Direct Funding for First Responders Act of 2005 was passed by the House Homeland-Security Committee last month and promotes state and local first-responder coordination and prioritizes security grants by risk. The Senate's version would provide every state with a minimum of guaranteed funding — 0.55% for each state — and a slightly higher amount for more densely populated states. The rest of the money would be allocated based on risks, threats and needs.

Local government holds the key to interoperability. More than 90% of the wireless public-safety infrastructure is operated and maintained at the local level, and they are the ones waiting for funds, according to a recent USCM survey. Seventy-five percent of the 192 cities representing 41 states indicated that limited local, state or federal funding prevented them from achieving full interoperability.

In addition, 75% of the surveyed cities said they had not received or been notified that they would receive federal homeland security funding for interoperability, and 59% reported that the current federal process for distributing the majority of homeland security funding through the states has delayed investment in interoperable communications equipment.

As a result, the USCM is pushing Congress to pass legislation creating a new formula-based first-responder funding program with direct local assistance.

“Because each state can establish its own funding distribution plan, local governments do not have a predictable source of funding that can be integrated into local homeland security plans,” the USCM said in its 2004 adopted resolution.

Federal interoperability
communication fund availability

75%, or 136 out of 192 cities, surveyed said they have not received or been notified that they would be receiving federal funding for interoperable communications.

17 survey cities below a population of 100,000, which are receiving or have been notified that they will be receiving federal funds for interoperability, report an average of $86,811 from the federal government for interoperability communications.

15 survey cities of 100,001 to 400,000 people, which are receiving or have been notified that they will be receiving federal funds for interoperability, report an average of $2 million from the federal government for interoperability communications.

Source: U.S. Conference of Mayors Survey

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