9/11 led to spending binge on homeland security grants

Some of the money has been put to good use, but reports have revealed problems involving no-bid contracts, non-working equipment, and poor coordination of resources.

The U.S. government has doled out more than $35 billion in homeland-security grants to state and local governments over the past decade. Yet even as questions persist about how effective the spending has been, officials are bracing for belt-tightening cuts.

The grants built up a network of capabilities in states, urban areas, and other regions since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Tens of thousands of first responders trained for dealing with terrorist attacks and natural disasters. At 73 "intelligence fusion" centers, analysts sift through data and share classified information over secret networks. Local police and fire departments have pricey radios, robots, and armored vehicles.

But reports over the years have revealed problems involving no-bid contracts, equipment that didn't work as planned, and poor coordination of resources. For example, emergency-response officials in California - by far one of the largest recipients of homeland-security money - used sole-source contracts to spend about $6.2 million on license-plate readers, $4 million on public-safety radios, and $1.2 million for intelligence-analysis software, according to an audit by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general. State officials acknowledge no-bid contracts were a problem and say they are reforming their procurement policies.

Officials in one California area spent more than $74,000 on 55 large-screen digital televisions for training but didn't purchase the actual training system, the IG found. "On the day we visited, all the televisions were being used to monitor the same television station," the IG wrote.

In Texas, $250,000 paid for an emergency-response trailer that was barely used because it was too big. "At the time of our visit, we were informed that the trailer had been parked since its purchase, with very little use," the IG wrote. A special-response team had to use bolt cutters to snip padlocks on two other first-responder trailers because they couldn't find keys to the locks, the IG found. "Upon opening the trailer doors, we discovered that two relatively new mobile generators had flat tires and would have been difficult to move in the event of an emergency."

The IG's findings, released earlier this year, covered a three-year stretch from 2006 through 2008, the most recent compiled data.

The Homeland Security Department argues those examples don't represent what the grants have accomplished so far.

Eddie Hicks saw the positive impact of the federal money in late April when violent storms and tornadoes ripped through Alabama, where he directs the Emergency Management Agency for Morgan County. Three regional rescue teams, equipped and trained through homeland-security grants, quickly moved into action. "When the April 27 storms came in, we didn't have to call somebody in from outside. We were able to use local resources to do the immediate search and rescue in the aftermath of the storms," Hicks said.

In the past few years, DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have also shifted priorities for how grantees can use the federal funds, placing an emphasis on trying to prevent terrorist attacks that originate inside the United States. The move was driven by intelligence that warns of attacks carried out by individuals. An attack on a military recruiting station in Seattle, Wash., in June was thwarted in part by a fusion center that was funded with homeland security grants, the senior DHS official said. No large-scale terrorist attack has been carried out on U.S. soil in the last decade -- proof, officials say, that the systems work.

But the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly reported that FEMA lacks a system to ensure that money is being spent wisely. Congress has required the agency through legislation to develop such a system, but it is still waiting. "They haven't met those requirements," a Senate aide who does oversight on grants said. "We think it's a failure on their part."

And a newly released survey found that a whopping 88 percent of emergency-response officials believe that grants are allocated according to what's best for politicians, not what's best for emergency preparedness. Still, 71 percent said the United States is better prepared for a terrorist attack today than in the days before 9/11. The study surveyed 1,055 public-service and public-safety professionals and was done by a group of reputable organizations, including the U.S. Council of the International Association of Emergency Managers and the American Public Health Association.

State and local governments have come to depend on the homeland-security grants to augment their budgets, and funding cuts could imperil existing projects. Officials in California, for example, told the Homeland Security Department's IG that fusion centers would have to close and large regional communications systems would be at risk if federal funding dries up.