Senate chair poised to offer first responder bill

The chairman of a key Senate committee said on Wednesday that she will unveil a measure to help "first responders" in the states more easily obtain federal aid for homeland security.

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she intends to introduce a bill that would authorize Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to issue waivers for states and localities that want federal funds for needs other than those stipulated in grant rules. Collins' announcement poses a solution to problems facing states and localities as they try to better prepare for terrorist attacks and other emergencies.

The current structure of most security grant programs establishes formulas for dividing grants for specific purposes, such as buying equipment or conducting personnel training exercises. But representatives of fire and police departments told Collins' committee in a hearing on Wednesday that those rules are cumbersome and prevent emergency-response organizations from directing federal money to needy areas.

The "multi-layer, multi-department" system to allocate grants has led to "total confusion and in most cases a lack of action" for local security efforts, said Fire Chief Edward Plaugher of Virginia's Arlington County.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, states and localities have had to boost security, in some cases under federal requirements, but have not received the resources they said are necessary to cover those costs. At the same time, most states face budget shortfalls.

Grants for Delaware's police "cannot be used to hire new police ... [or] pay overtime expenses that we incur each time [Homeland Security] Secretary [Tom] Ridge changes" the nation's security-alert level, said Jeffrey Horvath, police chief for Dover, Del.

There are grants available to help police and fire departments upgrade their equipment, including communications devices, Horvath said. But "I have to wait for a statewide plan to be developed, and then I hope that a fair share of those funds will filter to my department."

The witnesses said little grant money is reaching localities and appealed to the senators for a more streamlined system for allocating and distributing the money. They also called for flexibility in how the funds are used so they can better meet security mandates.

Portland, Maine, for example, is required by the Transportation Security Administration to keep 12 police officers on guard at the Portland International Jetport 24 hours a day, said Police Chief Michael Chitwood. But the government does not reimburse the costs to Portland for taking those officers from their regular beats.

"We may have to cut certain programs and services ... if the city of Dover is unable to find other revenue sources," Horvath added of his city's circumstances.

Horvath and Chitwood said neither of their departments has received any federal grants since Sept. 11, 2001.

Collins indicated that her measure likely would include a provision that would move the Office Of Domestic Preparedness from Homeland Security's border directorate into Ridge's office. With that move, "I hope to begin the process of establishing a canalized location to help our first responders," Collins said.