Mayors' group urges bigger military role in emergency response

The U.S. Conference of Mayors on Monday recommended changes to the federal government's procedures for responding to emergencies, including greater military assistance and "fixing" the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"The current legal paradigm is that the military is viewed as the 'resource of last resort' deployed to restore order," the group said in a statement. "Because of the sheer magnitude of the hurricane events recently experienced, and because acts of terrorism may spring up during or in the wake of such natural disasters, it is advantageous to consider an increased role for the military in disaster response."

Beverly O'Neill, who is the president of the conference and mayor of Long Beach, Calif., said cities need the authority to access military resources during the first critical hours and days following a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

The group announced the recommendations after a closed-door meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff where they discussed their proposals and asked for a seat at the table as President Bush and the secretary discuss the military's role and other issues after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. O'Neill said Chertoff vowed to work with the mayors but did not assure them that the department would meet their recommendations.

The mayors said they would like the Bush administration and Congress to let FEMA reimburse cities that provide "first responders" and other resources to other cities during emergencies. They also would like the federal government to address liability concerns that city officials have when sending assets to other cities.

The group said Congress should provide funding to help police officers, firefighters and other emergency personnel to acquire technology so they can communicate effectively during crises. Congress has been providing funding to solve the so-called interoperability problem since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The mayors said Congress must restore funding cuts for first-responder grants. Lawmakers earlier this month cut $600 million from the grants, arguing that billions of dollars from previous years had not been spent.

The mayors said they are frustrated with Congress' decision. They said state governments have yet to push the money down the pipeline to local governments. To alleviate the problem, the mayors recommended that Congress restructure the grants to distribute funding directly to the local officials.

The mayors also want the government to let city officials use the current funding streams for first responders for a 311 system. The system, similar to the emergency 911 telecommunications system, would be used to handle large volumes of incoming calls during city-wide emergencies.

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