NEW YORK – While U.S. troops wage a war against terrorism abroad, communities at home are going on the offensive and recruiting their own type of troops to keep streets safe, respond to emergencies and find any way to help a neighbor in need.
Homegrown volunteers are sprouting up around the country to answer President Bush's call to serve America through Citizen Corps, part of the president's $3.5 billion USA Freedom Corps plan, which focuses on making America stronger through volunteerism.
"I think, the citizens, they get it -- they understand this is a major concern and they're concerned and they've stepped up to even mobilize themselves and say, 'Hey, we need to be a part of this emergency training and we need to know what we need to do,'" said Jerome Duval, Washington, D.C.'s Citizen Corp director.
The goal of Citizen Corps is to find ways for citizens to volunteer and participate in community emergency preparation, prevention and response. It includes four national programs that can be used by local Citizen Corps councils: Community Emergency Response Team training; Medical Reserve Corps; Neighborhood Watch; and Volunteers in Police Service.
A fifth program -- Operation TIPS -- was taken out of the mix after civil liberties groups and lawmakers like retiring House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, expressed concern that the program would violate citizens' privacy.
A final measure in the homeland security bill passed by Congress during the lame-duck session last week struck Operation TIPS out of existence.
Even without it, since its launch shortly after Sept. 11, Citizen Corps has seen almost 53,000 Americans in all 50 states and territories sign up to volunteer in one of 222 councils. Bush asked Congress for $200 million to start these local programs all over the country.
"It is going full-speed ahead," said a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is taking the lead in coordinating local efforts to recruit the nation's volunteers.
"It's going strong and it's generated a lot of interest," she added.
In November, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced 42 grants totaling $2 million to community-based organizations to begin building local Medical Reserve Corps units that will help communities prepare and respond to public health emergencies.
In Washington, D.C., Citizen Corps recently put the finishing touches on its council make-up and adopted the motto: "Building communities, preparing a nation.'"
"We are in a very challenging position here in the District to ensure that this program is one of the best and is successful at the grassroots level, because that's where it's going to happen," Duval said. "The first responders are the citizens who are directly affected by the emergency."
The city has already identified 15 "hazard" areas that need to be hammered out to deal with emergencies. Such hazards include severe weather, transportation breakdowns, urban floods and fires, explosions, radiological and hazardous materials incidents, demonstrations, terrorism, tornadoes and water supply failures.
Communities that have created their own Citizen Corps councils are in the process of trying to match volunteers with various agencies and organizations where they can help the most. Those with medical training, for instance, may choose to join the Medical Reserve Corps, whereas those with no technical training could join the local neighborhood watch program.
Volunteer activities can include making meals for shut-ins, providing backpacks to low-income school children or handing out pamphlets on how to respond to an area emergency.
"Each community has to start their own programs to match their own needs," said Michelle Hannekken, Citizen Corps director for Illinois. "The biggest challenge is to get those appropriate people -- the mayors and so forth -- to get to know what these programs are all about.
"Education is key because a lot of people don't know what it is and what they can do."
Belvidere, Ill., a town about 70 miles northwest of Chicago, is being heralded as an example for other small communities.
Last January, the morning after Bush's State of the Union address in which he announced Citizen Corps, Belvidere officials hit the deck running, researching activities they could take part in and partnering with police and fire departments, emergency management officials and other groups such as the YMCA.
"We have had a fair amount of success as a result of the president's call," Belvidere Mayor Fred Brereton told Foxnews.com.
The town started programs such as a "Keep Kids Alive, Drive 25" program that urges drivers to stick to a 25-mph speed limit. The American Heart Association also called the town for help in handing out defibrillators to people who need them.
The town is "just trying to be more or less the marketing arm to get people to think about volunteering in the community, trying to identify their strengths, then match them up with the agency that most fits what they can do," Brereton said. "Hopefully, we will see some new faces and get some more volunteers."
Getting volunteers to donate their time and energy doesn't seem to be a problem.
Local Citizen Corps leaders said recruitment is no harder than getting the word out on what the program is, how it fits into the national homeland security plan and convincing people that everyone can play a role in community response.
One hurdle to overcome is to mold Citizen Corps plans to each community.
"This is not a cookie-cutter type of program," Brereton said. "Each community is going to have to find its own niche and how it can best play a role in this."