Localities short on homeland security personnel, not equipment

Every day, Gil Kerlikowske looks out over one of the country's largest terrorism targets. From his office window, Seattle's police chief sees two sports stadiums and one of America's busiest seaports.

In the back of his mind, he thinks about the Seattle area's close calls: "Millennium Bomber" Ahmed Ressam in 1999, and more recently, suspected Qaeda trainer and Seattle resident James Ujaama, as well as others still under investigation. Then there was the news about a year and a half ago that a laptop computer found in a cave in Tora Bora contained photos of Seattle. "I was shaken, to say the very least," he says.

Now Kerlikowske is being shaken by what he calls "a perfect storm" of budget cuts, new homeland-security duties, and rising crime. And while Seattle has received $11 million in federal homeland-security grants for equipment and training, the police chief's problem isn't lack of training so much as lack of people to train. And without more officers to assume increased homeland duties, he says, ultimately, "the [security] outcome will be that nothing will have changed." Or the outcome could change for the worse. Before he retired last month, Seattle's local FBI chief Charles Mandigo issued a report warning that the reduction in police forces made the area more attractive to terrorists.

In fact, even as federal dollars start to roll in, many states and localities are experiencing homeland security's cruel twist on the all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go dilemma: They have a lot of shiny new equipment, but can't afford to hire anyone to use it. And regardless of whose responsibility it is-federal, state, or local-to fill the gap, the budget deficit is translating into a homeland-security capacity deficit. "Without question, the single largest challenge is that we are unable to really hire people to support a lot of the federal equipment we're being asked to deploy," says Clifford Ong, director of Indiana's Counter-Terrorism and Security Council. "That is an intractable problem for us."

In Seattle, a $60 million deficit meant the loss of 75 positions from the police department-25 officers and 50 support staff. Though the cuts were achieved through attrition, not layoffs, they still leave Kerlikowske down 25 officers- not to mention the 30 additional he had hoped to hire. And Kerlikowske is not alone. Los Angeles estimates it has 1,000 fewer police officers than it needs. New York, under union pressure, relented on plans to cut more than 200 firefighting jobs, but still shut down six fire stations.

No comprehensive national numbers are available on this state and local "homeland-security deficit." The U.S Conference of Mayors surveyed its members during the country's last bout with an orange alert, and found that cities collectively spent $70 million additional each week under that elevated threat level. House Democrats are distributing a survey to mayors in their districts to gauge their "hometown-security" needs. They plan to release the results next month. Meanwhile, the International Association of Fire Fighters says that firefighter staffing levels in two-thirds of American cities are below national standards.

The answer, says Seattle's Kerlikowske, is federal help. "There has to be a point where, in this small number of [high-target] cities, that federal dollars have to be made [available] for personnel," he says. He has plenty of company in that sentiment. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley says if the federal government wants to beef up security quickly, then the federal government has to pay for a substantial part of the increased capacity demanded by the new homeland mission. He quips that homeland security has become "this new unfunded mandate called 'the common defense.' "

While homeland security is not entirely unfunded, the federal government has made it clear that under no circumstances is it going to get into the expensive proposition of hiring local police and firefighters. "The bottom line is, we have a responsibility to equip them, to help train them, to exercise them, to help them plan," says Josh Filler, director of the Homeland Security Department's Office of State and Local Coordination. "The basic responsibility to hire police and firefighters, we believe, rests with the state and local levels."

Filler emphatically points out that the federal government is spending an "unprecedented" amount of money on state and local homeland-security needs, which is true. So far, the department has provided $4.4 billion, and another $3.5 billion should be on the way in the next fiscal year. State and local officials acknowledge that the federal government has done a relatively good job of funding bioterror preparations, emergency response equipment, and to some degree, training.

Worried that homeland-security dollars will get funneled off to fill other budget gaps, the federal government has insisted that homeland grants go to programs that are primarily, if not exclusively, oriented to homeland security. That means no money for salaries, fire trucks, or infrastructure. The rationale sounds reasonable on its face, but unfortunately, homeland security doesn't work that way.

Indiana's Ong is struggling to balance the federal requirement to spend the state's money on homeland security with the reality that layering homeland-security money on a crumbling infrastructure is not going to do much good. "There are a lot of challenges being thrown to the intelligence-gathering community, the public health community, and the emergency management community," he says. "That requires the organizational capacity that just isn't there. It's not enough to say to people, 'You need to find a way of assimilating these duties into your existing budget.' It just doesn't happen."

Filler acknowledges the fuzzy line between what is and isn't homeland security, and for now, he is using the I-know-it-when-I-see-it rule. That's both good news and bad news for cash-strapped states. The good news is that federal money can probably be used for programs that state officials have been assuming are off-limits. Installing targeted information-systems software, Filler says, probably would qualify. But beefing up 911 systems (which have proven unreliable in Washington, D.C., for example), would have a harder time qualifying, he says. "This is not just money for generic public safety." The bad news is that personnel and infrastructure, a top priority for local homeland-security officials, are a no-go.

Experts such as John Cohen, a cop-turned-homeland-security-consultant, get red-faced when policy makers try to separate day-to-day safety activities from homeland security. Those everyday activities provide the foundation for all homeland-security efforts, Cohen says. How can you expect that Washington, D.C.'s emergency responders will be able to don their new protective gear and run off to the site of a terrorist attack when the 911 emergency response system is repeatedly on the fritz?

What's needed is to "reorient the philosophy at the federal level," Cohen says. "Until we move away from this flawed philosophy that homeland security is something adjunct [to] or separate from the day-to-day public safety or public health activities, we're not going to truly benefit from all these millions of federal dollars."

The Homeland Security Department's priorities have relegated state and local duties almost entirely to cleaning up rather than preventing, says Rob Atkinson, vice president of the centrist Democrat think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute. While Filler says he'd consider funding information systems, Atkinson contends that the people he's spoken with at the department couldn't even persuade the powers-that-be to squeeze $20 million into the 2004 budget for a pilot project to link federal, state, and local information systems. (This week, though, the department did announce support for two smaller information-sharing pilot projects in Florida and the mid-Atlantic region.)

"We can't expect state and local law enforcement to win this war with the current tools they are using," he says. "That's going to require a significant investment to modernize the tools. States can't do it on their own.... It absolutely increases our vulnerability." Without federal chaperoning, Atkinson says, the country will slowly evolve a patchwork of state and local information systems that can't talk to each other.

Budget shortfalls are stunting other forward-thinking homeland-security efforts. States and localities that are living in the budgetary moment don't have the time or money to think and invest long term.

California, says Rick Martinez, the state's chief deputy for homeland security, has focused its spending largely on equipment. If he had more money, Martinez says, he'd put it toward personnel, infrastructure, long-term training facilities, long-term strategizing, and a unified communications system for emergency responders.

In Miami-Dade County in Florida, Homeland Security Director Joseph R. Pinon says he'd love to have 20 people assigned just to assessing the threat. "I have a whole list of things that if I had the ability to do, we would feel a lot more secure; but we don't have that luxury," Pinon said. "Could we have it? Yes. We just spent how many billions of dollars on the war? It's not that it's unreachable, but it's politically incorrect."

With an ongoing home-front war on terrorism, lack of long-term planning may be the most dangerous budget casualty of all. It puts all levels of government in a state of perpetual catch-up that emphasizes response over prevention. And that's not the best recipe for out-thinking terrorists.