Lawmakers voice concerns about emergency preparations

Democrats and Republicans on a House Homeland Security subcommittee on Wednesday criticized a Homeland Security Department official over various issues related to the department's emergency preparedness and response directorate, including Bush administration funding for "first responders" to emergencies.

The Emergency Preparedness and Response Subcommittee hearing featured Homeland Security Undersecretary Michael Brown and opened with statements from full committee Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., and ranking member Jim Turner, D-Texas.

Cox praised the department's efforts to adapt to the terrorist threat while maintaining an all-hazards approach to emergency response. He said Congress and the administration are working together to reform the grant-making process to first responders, citing the $20 million request for emergency medical supplies and the creation of a National Incident Management System (NIMS) as examples of cooperation.

"An all-hazards approach to emergency management has worked effectively in the past. But the terrorist threat requires more flexible and adaptive programs," Cox said. "We need to show that preparedness, not just response, is the mission" of the emergency preparedness and response directorate. Cox said the full committee will address bills focused on metrics for departmental performance and an authorization to sharpen the department's spending practices.

Turner, meanwhile, questioned the competence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the core of the directorate. FEMA was ranked last in a November survey of the best places to work in the federal government. Turner also criticized plans to limit the amount of federal grants that can be spent on first responders' salaries.

Subcommittee Chairman John Shadegg, R-Ariz., said he is concerned that the directorate's preparedness mission has been lost, shifting to Homeland Security's Office of State and Local Government Coordination. He said he is worried that the directorate may be "viewed by some in the department as, 'Oh, those are just the response guys.'"

Shadegg asked Brown whether the directorate is maintaining an inventory of all state first-responder prevention, preparedness and response equipment and not duplicating its efforts with other Homeland Security divisions.

Subcommittee ranking member Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., criticized administration plans to cut federal grants to augment local first-responder salaries and other ideas. "The president's request seems to ignore these critical needs," he said.

Brown said the administration's budget request maintains record spending levels for disaster planning and first response, most notably $2.5 billion for Project BioShield, $20 million for new emergency medical equipment, and $7 million for NIMS to connect federal, state and local authorities during disasters.

Brown said his directorate is sharing information with the Office of Domestic Preparedness on state supply inventories. He also said Homeland Security will contribute to first-responder salaries in partnership with state and local governments.