"It's impossible to secure the nation's homeland exclusively from the nation's capital," he said during a keynote speech at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council. "Just as important as new relationships we make at the federal level are the new partnerships we make with our state and local counterparts in the private sector."
Ridge said that while billions of dollars have been sent to states and local "first responders" to emergencies, specific goals at the local level are essential.
"What we've asked your governors and mayors to do is to get together on a statewide basis to build statewide homeland security plans," he said. "We need to build them from the bottom up. The homeland will be secure when the home town is secure."
Developing policies, however, is not enough. State officials must "examine those policies closely [and] determine ... if they harm the freedoms we need to protect," Ridge said.
With state plans in place, the "next step" for Homeland Security is a comprehensive program to measure state and local preparedness that weighs "the level of threat against a region," he said.
Border regions are constantly on alert, Ridge said, but the nation's border must be kept "wide open to legitimate commerce," a move that requires partnership.
That type of coordination was apparent during a recent U.S. initiative to inspect U.S.-bound cargo before it left foreign ports, he said. "If we can secure this cargo at the port of departure, we can build a new layer of security around our entire nation," Ridge said. That makes the U.S. borders a "last line of defense, not a first line of defense."
On the domestic front, Ridge said the Pentagon held a mock security exercise this week to test its response to emergency situations.
"Terrorism was and is now a permanent condition, one that must be permanently fought," he said. "To achieve the goal of homeland security, we must prevent terrorist attacks, reduce our vulnerability ... [and] prepare and respond should one occur."
Information sharing is critical to ensuring that various agencies can respond quickly and efficiently to an emergency, Ridge said, adding that his department is working to grant security clearances to the necessary individuals and is working with state information-technology officials to develop standards for the use of technology among the involved parties.
"We're working to develop a national incident-management system," he said. "It's important you get the resources you need but equally important they are managed ... wisely."