Funds for First Responders Stuck in Red Tape

Support for first responders (search) — police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel — has emerged as a contentious political issue, with both parties claiming they are working to help the nation's first line of defenders.

But municipal officials say despite their best efforts, the cash intended to help these groups is getting caught up in bureaucratic red tape.

Cities and municipal divisions like fire and police departments must apply for much of the money, usually through state government, and local authorities say the routine has been less than smooth.

"The whole process has been extremely cumbersome. The time frame for submittal of applications for the grants has been very short. Any time that you're dealing with the federal government there are reams of paperwork to be filled out," said California Fire Chiefs Association (search) President Bill McCammon, who is also fire chief in Alameda County.

"The money just is not filtering down to fire department level. Frankly, the pass-through with the states really does not insure, in our view, that the distribution of the money goes where it's needed," said Kevin O'Connor, director of governmental and public affairs for the International Association of Firefighters (search).

Under the Bush administration, a greater percentage of federal funds for first responders pass through the states than during the previous administration. Critics say that as a result, it takes longer for the cash to reach its ultimate destination.

"Many states don't have the mechanisms in place to distribute the money in an effective fashion. Simply ordering quicker disbursement, however, is probably not the answer: The idea of block grants is to let states develop their own mechanisms for handing out the money. If it is to work, the federal government should give states breathing room to do it," said Heritage Foundation (search) adjunct fellow Eli Lehrer.

America's mayors recently registered their complaints with President Bush during a January U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting. Bush acknowledged that he had been hearing complaints that the money was moving too slowly and said he would discuss the situation with the nation's governors during a February meeting.

"I understand sometimes [the money] gets stuck not in Washington. It gets stuck at the state level, as I understand. I'm not interested in pointing fingers. I'm interested in making the system work better," Bush told the mayors.

But critics say the problem is not just the route for the cash, but the amount being disbursed.

Since March 1, 2003, the Department of Homeland Security (search) has awarded or allotted over $8 billion to support state and local preparedness. Between fiscal year 2001 and the fiscal year 2005 budget request, over $14.5 billion in assistance has been or will be made available for programs now under the Homeland Security Department.

But while homeland security funding continues to increase, the president's proposed budget for next fiscal year would cut $800 million in grants to first responders. The Office of Domestic Preparedness (search) would receive $3.6 billion down from $4.4 billion in funds for first-responder grants.

Currently, federal money makes up under 5 percent of fire departments' budgets, O'Connor said, pointing to the need for more aid.

"That’s really the problem. Traditionally the federal government has viewed the fire service as strictly the local responsibility," he said, adding that fire service operations face critical shortages in staffing, with two-thirds of departments functioning below national standards.

"The proposed budget actually takes a huge step backwards," O'Connor said. Some of the proposed cuts in the president's budget will particularly hurt the fire service, O'Connor said, pointing to possible cuts in training grants and the proposed abandonment of the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Firefighters Act (search), also known as the SAFER Act, which helps to maintain employment levels at fire companies.

Democrats have attempted to poke holes in the administration's homeland security plan for first responders, saying it also does not adequately support improving communications among emergency personnel.

"We know what we must do to protect America, but this administration is failing to meet the challenge," said House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (search), D-Calif. "One hundred percent communication in real time is needed for our police officers, firefighters and all of our first responders to prevent or respond to a terrorist attack. Today, the technology is there but the resources are not."

McCammon added that communications interoperability is the area "that continually comes up as one of the areas that we need the most improvement and that requires the most funding to be worked on."

McCammon and O'Connor said not all the news is bad — several Bush initiatives are working quite well. Both praised the Urban Area Security Initiative Grants (search), which devote an increasing amount of money to high threat regions such as Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. The 2005 budget would boost UASI spending by $558 million, doubling the program's funds.

The UASI evaluates each region's needs based on its likely threat level, population and infrastructure, an alternative to allocating cash by a fixed percentage for each state. McCammon said that while the system has experienced many hiccups, that is only natural considering the breadth of new challenges the nation faces.

"We're all learning how to work in this process. On some level it is working and there is a period of adjustment. Some of the things are being streamlined as we speak," McCammon said.