Frayed Connections

America's federal, state and local governments must learn to get along if they are to provide real homeland security.

As chaos reigned in lower Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, an entirely different scene was unfolding more than 150 miles north in Albany, New York's capital. There, state officials were gathering in "the bunker," an emergency management nerve center beneath the New York State Police headquarters complex. As New York City emergency management officials scrambled to recover from the loss of their emergency response center-buried under the collapsed World Trade Center twin towers-the Albany bunker became the heart of an effort to focus the full resources of both the state government and the federal government to help city officials regroup.

Mark French, a volunteer firefighter from nearby Columbia County and an employee in the state's Office of Children and Family Services, pulled two shifts staffing the center. "It was impressive," he says. "You had officials from all the relevant state agencies sitting at desks around you so that if you needed something or had a question, all you had to do was ask."

The center's director, Ed Jacoby Jr., who had been rushed home from an emergency preparedness conference in Montana in an F-16, says the type of officials sitting at those desks were "people who can make decisions on the spot." So, while the New York Department of Environmental Conservation was setting up air testing stations around ground zero, the New York State Department of Transportation was working on an overall transit plan for the city in concert with city officials. The Department of Taxation lent its call center to handle the flood of phone inquiries and offers of assistance that began pouring in. The New York National Guard was mobilized for a wide variety of work and security details. Employees of the Federal Emergency Management Agency worked with state officials in the bunker to line up appropriate federal assistance.

It was the sort of cooperation and coordination that government bureaucracies aren't well known for the kind of effort that seems to be achieved only when inspired by the most horrific events. But the response in Albany was just one example of the kind of cooperation and coordination that all levels of government-federal, state and local-are going to have to make routine if the United States is going to be ready to prevent or respond to future attacks, say experts in terrorism preparedness.

That job is daunting. Trying to get a handle on all of the issues involved in homeland security is like chasing fog. First, there's the range of possible terrorist tools-biological agents, conventional explosives, chemical weapons and nuclear "dirty bombs," any of which might be delivered by enemies who are unafraid to die themselves in the process. Then there are the thousands of miles of border and the bustling ports and border crossings where terrorists can enter the country. Finally, there is the list of potential targets, including water supplies, power plants, hospitals, ballparks, airports, rail lines, power lines, dams, farms, factories, government buildings, civic monuments and soaring high rises, just for starters. "The U.S. is so large and so open that its vulnerabilities are almost incalculable," says Peter Beering, terrorism coordinator for the city of Indianapolis, who has made a career of making exactly such calculations. "The list of potential targets is literally the telephone directory."

Playing defense on the homeland security team, in other words, is a big, complicated and messy job-and one that isn't likely ever to be finished. Even the most advanced jurisdictions admit that they still have a lot to do and learn. But officials at all levels of government and across all kinds of agencies-from police and fire departments to public health, environmental and transportation agencies-agree that moving in the right direction is going to require local, state and federal officials to start working together more closely than they ever have in the past. "We're all one family now," says Jacoby. "We're all in this together."

But taken as a whole, the country's level of readiness is a patchwork quilt. Some states and localities seem to be relatively well-positioned to meet the anti-terror challenge. Others are just getting started. Underlying it all are continued problems with turf, responsibility, control and a basic tension between the imperative to centralize the nation's response system and the need to ensure flexibility in choosing the tools and tactics that are most appropriate for a given jurisdiction.

Positive Picture

A huge amount of sound and fury is emanating from all levels of government as insiders, outsiders and experts of every stripe weigh in on what ought to be done on the homeland security front, how quickly it needs to happen, who ought to have control over what and who should pay for it.

States and localities are adding anti-terrorism czars to their existing public safety systems and clamoring for billions more in federal money. Local officials insist they should get their cut of the federal pie directly, not through their state capitals. State officials counter that they're the natural organization point for the anti-terrorism response, and thus should be the conduit through which all federal assistance flows.

At the federal level, a gaggle of congressional committees is laying claim to pieces of the anti-terror turf. Lawmakers have introduced numerous bills dealing with law enforcement and funding for homeland security. Meanwhile, more than 40 agencies have petitioned Congress for special anti-terrorism funds, and a number of them have added homeland security offices to their already crowded organizational charts. Overseeing the federal effort is former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge's Office of Homeland Security, which faces the monumental challenge of putting all the pieces together.

In spite of the apparent chaos, upper-level staff in Ridge's office say they're optimistic about the nation's response and the chances of knitting together a coherent intragovernmental and intergovernmental anti-terror network. "The climate has changed," says Mark Holman, deputy assistant to the President for homeland security. "The American people and the President have an expectation that you can't have federal, state and local entities all operating independently."

Given the new imperative, says Holman, government agencies at all levels simply will have to start working together. He doesn't underestimate how difficult that will be for federal agencies. "I think things are more territorial at the federal level just by virtue of the size of the federal government," he says. "But we have a call to bring all agencies together." The Office of Homeland Security is considering putting together an intergovernmental advisory panel as part of its effort to craft both an immediate and a five-year homeland defense plan, Holman says.

For now, though, it's easy to look at the homeland security effort and see a very discouraging picture: Unlimited opportunity for terrorists. Governments at all levels running around doing their own thing. Food fights over funding. Jockeying for territory and position.

The real anti-terrorism picture, however, is more subtle, more complicated and, arguably, more positive. A number of states and cities have been working hard since the mid-1990s to build terrorism prevention and response capacities, in concert with officials from every level of government. In these places, there's a good working relationship between state and local officials and the regional federal operatives with whom they deal, whether in law enforcement, emergency response or public health.

Some of that work was inspired by federal legislation in 1996 that created competitive grants for cities to implement anti-terrorism plans. Under the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, sponsored by former Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., along with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., cities are eligible for grants to purchase equipment and conduct training exercises to combat terrorism. Initially, the Defense Department doled out the money, and it was restricted to the nation's largest 120 cities. The program has since been expanded, and in 1999 it was shifted to the Justice Department's Office of Domestic Preparedness. The grants pass through state governments, and only states that have developed strategic anti-terrorism plans that identify terrorist threats and targets and specify response plans are eligible.

That's why such a seemingly unlikely place such as Dane County, Wis., home to the state's capital, Madison, now has a substantial anti-terrorism plan in place. A central piece of Dane County's plan is a list of 187 potential terrorist targets, including a "top 20" set of targets most likely to be hit. The list was put together by a "domestic preparedness committee," made up of a host of county and city agencies, dozens of state agencies-including the highway patrol, emergency management and even family services-and federal representatives from the FBI, Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ray Pena, a population protection planner for the Dane County Emergency Management Department, says the group has been working steadily on readiness plans, doing drills and continuing to refine relationships and response protocols. Pena adds that the county also has reached out to adjoining cities and counties as a way to try to coordinate a regional response to any act of terrorism.

In Illinois, teams of first responders are now trained to handle both hazardous materials incidents and gunfights with terrorists. The idea for such teams came from a drill at the Illinois state fairgrounds that mimicked a biological attack launched by terrorists carrying guns. "Of course, what we found out was that the HAZMAT people weren't going in until law enforcement had dealt with the armed terrorists," says Matt Bettenhausen, the state's director of homeland security. "And law enforcement wouldn't go in because of the biohazard threat." Teams trained to deal with both issues now are placed strategically around the state, ready to respond at a moment's notice.

In Georgia, the state's head of homeland security has launched an effort to join forces with private firms to secure facilities ranging from ports to oil tank farms. Meanwhile, the state police have put together a special unit to check out trucks that carry hazardous materials-and the people who drive them.

All Disasters Are Local

State and local officials seem to have been thinking and working harder and more cooperatively on domestic preparedness than federal executives. "The federal government is just trying to catch up now," says Mel Dubnick, who follows intergovernmental affairs as a professor of political science and public administration at Rutgers University, Newark.

The advanced state of readiness at the state and local level shouldn't be a surprise, since these levels of government are closer to the problem when it comes to disasters, both man-made and natural. Yet many federal officials are still digesting that reality. "I think it hadn't really dawned on a lot of federal officials that state and local governments are really the primary players when it comes to both homeland terror prevention and response," says one high-level federal official. "It tests the federal view."

Just as it's no surprise that state and local governments have been paying more attention to homeland security than the feds, it's also not astonishing that those states and localities that are best-prepared to respond to terrorism are the ones with the most experience in dealing with disasters.

"We've developed a very robust system," says Dallas Jones, director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services for disaster-prone California. Jones says that years of fires, earthquakes, riots and floods have driven the state to continually upgrade its intergovernmental emergency response capabilities and protocols.

In California, says Jones, state and local governments operate under a set of sweeping memoranda of understanding that commit agencies at all levels of government to answer when called. The agencies are connected to a state alert system so that calls can go out quickly and in a coordinated fashion.

In the event of a "World Trade Center-like event" in California, Jones says his office could immediately call in the state forestry department, for example, to set up a mobilization center. The department's employees are accustomed to building whole cities in the middle of the wilderness-they do it all the time when fighting major forest fires. And Jones' office could call the National Guard to handle the transportation of emergency response crews-they've had plenty of practice moving people in and out of disaster areas. In fact, New York called in officials from California to help with the distribution of donated supplies after the World Trade Center attacks precisely because of California's experience with disasters. The state also has developed a way to account for every agency's contribution to an alert, so that when it comes time to reimburse them, there's a maximum of documentation and a minimum of argument. Underlying California's system-and perhaps the key building block in developing a coherent intergovernmental terrorism prevention and response system-is the understanding that all disasters and emergencies are essentially local events, says Jones. Any system of terrorism prevention and response should start at the ground level, he argues, and build up. Local officials couldn't agree more. If something bad happens, "the feds aren't the ones who are going to be pulling bodies out of buildings," says Constance Perett, administrator of the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management, which works hand in glove with Jones' office through a regional coordinator.

Perett's world arguably is a microcosmic model of how the country should be thinking about terror prevention and response. Los Angeles County is sprawling, complex, multi-ethnic and multi-layered. Encompassing 400,000 square miles and including 88 cities, 137 named but unincorporated entities, 94 school districts and hundreds of special districts for everything from providing water to running sewer systems, it contains nearly one-third of California's total population of 35 million people. If L.A. County were a state, it would be the eighth most populous. It includes every conceivable terrorist target: oil pipelines, refineries, farms, ports, key rail lines, major freeways, sports facilities, water lines and military bases.

While the county always has been in the emergency management business, says Perett, it wasn't until 1996 that its board of supervisors gave her office specific orders to fight terrorism. Knowing that quite a bit of work had already been done by county law enforcement and fire officials, Perett pulled them into the circle, along with their counterparts at the federal, state and local levels. These officials joined representatives of local and state public health agencies, the National Guard, transportation organizations and dozens of other agencies and interests in forming an anti-terrorism working group.

Among the initiatives launched by the working group were training videos and exercises for the county's 49,000 first responders to disasters, as well as efforts to knit the county together into a more coherent collective of first-response agencies. It isn't perfect by any means, says Perett, but the county is now light years ahead of where it was back when terrorist attacks weren't on the regional radar screen.

The relationship between state and local government in California has led Perett to one important conclusion: The federal government should not send huge amounts of money to local governments absent a cohesive state terrorism prevention and response strategy. "Cities and counties are always concerned that the state is siphoning off the resources," says Perett. "But those same officials will be the first ones screaming when the state fails to provide direction and coordination during an incident."

California learned that lesson the hard way during a major fire in the hills of Oakland in 1991. "We lost a lot of homes and people died because of the chaotic response," says Perett. "Hose couplings didn't match from one fire company to the next. There was different terminology for equipment and tactics." The Oakland debacle led to state legislation requiring broad standardization of gear, tactics and terminology in firefighting forces statewide.

Since then, it has become axiomatic in California that state and local government work closely together when it comes to emergency preparedness and response. Communication protocols and equipment-both to alert agencies to an incident and to coordinate action during an incident-have been upgraded, with the state continuing to work with local jurisdictions to develop compatible systems.

Communication Conundrum

It's appropriate that so much time and attention has been paid to communication, say those who've made careers in emergency management. Communication has sifted out as the single overriding issue when it comes to preventing and responding to terrorist incidents. That includes communication among the potential players in overall anti-terrorism efforts and communication with the general public.

It is an issue that encompasses how well public officials communicate with each other as well as whether communication technology is suitable for use during disasters. How the country deals with the communication conundrum-at all levels-will ultimately dictate how successful the United States is in preparing for terrorism.

Much has been made of the need for law enforcement agencies at all levels to begin sharing information better. But the communication picture is much larger than that.

On the one hand there are the fundamental-and in many cases new-personal relationships that need to be forged at the local, regional, state and federal level. "The NFL's most successful quarterbacks don't meet their receivers for the first time in the huddle," says Indianapolis' Beering, who heads the city's anti-terrorist effort and is active in an ongoing forum on homeland security at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Beyond the need for greater personal contact is the nitty-gritty issue of how to ensure coherent, reliable communication between high-level commanders and units in the field.

The issue of compatible communication technology must be resolved at a high level among local, state and federal officials before another attack takes place. Right now, the fact that local first responders use many different kinds of communication gear is a symptom of the lack of communication and cooperation among various layers and players at all levels of government.

Michigan, for example, is developing a statewide radio system that will operate on compatible channels so that all agencies involved in an incident can literally be on the same wavelength. "We're in the process of building an 800-megahertz backbone system for the whole state," says Col. Mike Robinson, who oversees the state's police, fire and emergency management operations. "Meanwhile you have the U.S. Department of Justice funding radio equipment at the county and city level that isn't compatible. There has to be better coordination."

Low Expectations

Robinson's comment is typical of state and local complaints about the federal government's role in homeland security. The criticisms can be divided into three categories: how the federal government responds and behaves during an event; how the feds interact with state and local government as a matter of routine; and how federal agencies conduct their affairs in Washington as partners in protecting U.S. citizens.

After the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla., federal officials charged in "as if there was no local incident command," says Ann Simank, an Oklahoma City Council member who has been active on the homeland security front with the National League of Cities. "Our first responders are well-trained and professional and after what they'd been through they didn't need that," Simank says. L.A. County's Perett reports a similar pushy approach by some feds during her county's readiness drills.

Federal hubris at ground zero-wherever that might be-is bad enough, say state and local officials. Much worse, they contend, is the attitude of federal agencies in Washington. For an earful on the subject, just ask any state or local director of emergency management or homeland security. "Cumbersome," "complex," "illogical" and "fragmented" are just some of the adjectives they use.

"It's very frustrating," says Illinois's Bettenhausen. "[The Justice Department] wants a strategic plan on homeland security and they make that process incredibly cumbersome and complicated. Now FEMA wants a plan and HHS wants one." At the same time, he says, the feds insist on tightly controlling what states can do with federal grant money. At times, the federal directives have no bearing on any state, local or actual emergency response need or technical reality.

Bettenhausen, who used to be an assistant U.S. attorney, says he doesn't have a problem with federal agencies asking for proof of a coherent state effort. Nor does he mind their taking an active role in developing national technical standards for equipment or response protocols. But what he'd like to see is a little coherence from the federal government-agencies working together so that states and cities don't have to deal with each one separately. And Bettenhausen and his colleagues would like to see many more federal partnerships with state and local government, especially if the feds are going to have a say in setting standards. Incidentally-or maybe not incidentally-Bettenhausen would like one other thing: the check for the $5.8 million that the Justice Department promised Illinois for fiscal 2000 and 2001 for the state's homeland defense efforts.

Bettenhausen's list of complaints leads ultimately to the door of the Office of Homeland Security, for which state and local officials seem to have almost universally high hopes and low expectations.

But what state and local officials don't want out of the Office of Homeland Security is a new federal Big Brother handing down orders from on high-something that Ridge and company seem to have no interest in doing. What state and local officials do want is a single federal point of coordinated contact. They also want Ridge to set up a standing intergovernmental committee to help hash out the federal response to homeland security and set some basic priorities for where and how resources should be used. Key members of Congress should also have a place at the table, adds Michigan Gov. John Engler, president of the National Association of Governors. That might be a way, says Engler, to show Congress that it must unify its own approach to homeland security, which he characterizes as "hopeless."

But when it comes to getting the federal government to coordinate the homeland security effort and to build new and strong partnerships with state and local governments, few officials outside Washington are very optimistic. Many such officials will apply the "B rule" to Ridge, Bettenhausen predicts: They'll "be here when you got here and be here when you leave."

Jonathan Walters is a freelancer writer in Ghent, N.Y., who frequently writes on intergovernmental issues.
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