Homeland conferees grant first responders funding boost
Increase is smaller than expected in the wake of Katrina.
Despite urgent demands from lawmakers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that first responders at all levels of government must be able to talk to each other, emergency personnel will receive only slightly more for new communications gear than the amount initially proposed by President Bush in February.
House-Senate conferees agreed last week to provide the Homeland Security Department with $27 million to develop technology and expand interoperability initiatives, $15 million less than the House approved in its spending bill in May. The Senate's version included $15 million, and President Bush requested $21 million. The two chambers are slated to take up the spending bill later this week.
Officials had been working to solve the so-called interoperability problem since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when firefighters in New York City were unable to communicate during the crisis. The problem surfaced again last month when first responders in the Gulf Coast area could not talk to each other in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said after touring the hurricane-ravaged area that Congress had invested money over the last four years but its efforts had failed. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it would cost $15 billion to upgrade equipment for firefighters and police and experts say it would take 15 to 20 years to connect the 60,000 emergency workers across the country.
Elsewhere in the spending bill, conferees agreed to a higher level of funding for the department's science and technology agency, which is responsible for researching, developing and acquiring numerous countermeasures. The House originally proposed $1.2 billion and the Senate $1.4 billion, with the two chambers settling on $1.4 billion -- $100 million more than President Bush requested.
The lawmakers also were persuaded to increase funding for a new initiative -- a domestic nuclear-detection office within the Science and Technology directorate. Lawmakers this summer wanted to slash $100 million from Bush's proposal to create the nuclear-detection office, but the two chambers now have agreed to provide $91 million above Bush's $227 million request.
Lawmakers had argued that the administration needed to clearly justify the initiative before they would fully support it. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in June told a House committee that the detection office was a "very, very high priority" to prevent nuclear material from being smuggled across U.S. borders. The detection office would work with CIA, FBI, the Pentagon and other intelligence officials to thwart a nuclear attack.
Conferees could not agree on a proposal to create a second technology transfer program within the Science and Technology directorate to quickly build and use new products. House lawmakers backed $10 million for the project, but their Senate colleagues did not allocate any money for a similar initiative.
"It is the sense of the [House] committee that the department needs a robust and perhaps innovative technology transfer program that not only reviews technologies but also helps get products into production and assures rapid use once built," House appropriators said in their report on the spending measure.
In the end, House-Senate lawmakers did provide $50 million for a technology transfer program within another division of the department to ensure promising technology is available for state and local officials.