First Responders Predicted This Could Happen

Those who deal with disaster on a local level warned Congress and the Bush Administration earlier this year that training and equipment for first responders were titled too much toward combatting terrorism and away from dealing with natural disasters like hurricanes.

Congressional investigators urged the administration to correct the tilt but no changes were made.

Emergency personnel began raising red flags when the Federal Emergency Management Agency lost its independence and joined the 22-agency Homeland Security Department in March 2003.

The mammoth department was created in 2002 as a response to the lack of coordination prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and its emphasis clearly is terrorism. Officials developed an “all hazards” policy that used the same training exercises and equipment to prepare for two distinct types of disasters: a terrorist attack and an event of nature.

The agency in the past four years awarded $11.3 billion to state and local governments to prepare and respond to a terrorist attack.

Congress’ Government Accountability Office reported in July that of 39 first responder departments surveyed, 31 disagreed that the training and grant funds worked for all types of hazards.

“In addition, officials from four first responder departments went on to say that DHS required too much emphasis on terrorism-related activities in requests for equipment and training,” the GAO said.

The Homeland Security programs were geared toward combating weapons of mass destruction and preventing attacks using chemical, biological , radiological, nuclear and explosive agents, the report said.

Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Homeland Security department, said, “We’ve had a regular dialogue with first responders and discussed some of these issues with them. We’re clearly an all hazards department and have taken significant measures to enhance preparedness and recovery capability since Sept. 11.”

He added that integrating FEMA into the massive Homeland Security department “only enhanced the agency’s ability to carry out its mission” because it can tap into the large department’s law enforcement agencies and the Coast Guard.

The investigators said emergency responders “had a greater need for assistance preparing for natural and accidental disasters.” They wanted more flexibility to use grant money to respond to events more likely to occur in their regions.

Two days after the GAO report was issued, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced major changes in his agency, mostly focusing on preparedness against terrorism.

But he also said, “If something goes wrong, we will not only acknowledge it, we will be the first to fix the error.”

Knocke said the agency would review its response to Katrina but it was too early to take that step with rescues and evacuations still under way along the Gulf Coast.

“What worked and what didn’t work, and issues of coordination, are issues that are certain to be worked through at the right time,” the spokesman said. “It’s too soon to speculate on all of that.”

Congress already plans hearings on the response to Katrina.