First responders need national standards, says former lawmaker

Local "first responders" to emergencies will not be able to effectively react to a terrorist attack until they have a standard for response, a former senator said on Tuesday.

"What we need is a mandate for national minimum standards for homeland security for first responders," former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman, N.H., told members of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations. "You cannot establish priorities until you know what the standards are."

More specifically, Rudman suggested that the Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments work to set the standards, and that Homeland Security institute a "best practices" guide on how to work with state and local governments.

Rudman, chairman of the Independent Task Force on Emergency Responders, criticized the government's pace, calling for standards to be implemented within six months to a year. He said future federal grants to first responders "should include strict distribution guidelines."

He also criticized the decision to focus so much federal money on airport security, saying that the funding would have been better spent on port security.

Funding was a contentious issue among subcommittee Democrats, several of whom said the request by President Bush for $87 billion more this fiscal year to help reconstruct Iraq would mean fewer dollars for emergency responders at home. "The focus of [Bush's] attention to the war in Iraq that we didn't need has created greater concerns among the American people," said Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democratic presidential candidate.

Kucinich advocated bringing troops home from Iraq in order to focus more money on domestic preparedness and backed the establishment of a national standard. "Let's start funding police, fire and [emergency medical technicians] at the level that they need," he said.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., also criticized Bush's plan but said homeland security should be a bipartisan issue. "We should work together to fix the vulnerabilities," she said.

Maloney said officials in the New York City Fire Department told her that they are less prepared now than they were the day before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. "They say that homeland security is a strain on local governments. ... There's a lack of guidance from Homeland Security [and] a lack of money from federal government," she said.

John Tierney, D-Mass., said first responders in his district could use national standards.

Subcommittee Chairman Christopher Shays, R-Conn., agreed that the nation needs standards but stressed that we cannot "afford to wait for a national consensus on standards to emerge before funding critical first-responder initiatives."

Maryland Democrat C.A. (Dutch) Ruppersberger was less willing to criticize Bush's proposed budget for Iraq but cited Bush's tax cuts as evidence that the main problem is that "we have not made homeland security a priority. ... From my perspective, the tax cuts just aren't working. We need to re-evaluate our entire situation."

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