WASHINGTON INSIGHT

DHS: The Soap Opera

Kristina Tanasichuk
Senior Manager of Government Affairs
APWA Washington Office

When Michael Chertoff took the helm of the Department of Homeland Security earlier this year, he testified before Congress about a top to bottom review of the Department to assure that "bureaucratic structures and categories exist to serve our mission, not to drive it." To achieve that end, and to make "all effort to tear down stove-pipes and coordinate key intelligence, policy and operational issues across DHS and the government," Chertoff initiated a comprehensive review of DHS organization, operations and policies to examine what is working and what isn't.

And he began to try and reorient the expectations of the public toward a vision of homeland security that manages risk by using the "trio of threat, vulnerability, and consequence as a general model of assessing risk and deciding on the protective measures we undertake."

And it all sounds well and good. Until you talk to the locals.

APWA members aside, a recent report from the Congressional Research Service entitled "State and Local Homeland Security: Unresolved Issues for the 109th Congress" issued June 9, methodically catalogs many of the same issues that existed for local officials since the day after 9/11: not enough resources for hiring and retention of emergency responder personnel or for interoperable communication; no emergency responder equipment standards; and limited involvement of state and local officials.

How do these issues match up to the new Secretary's agenda? Honestly, we simply don't know yet. But there are clues. For example, in their FY2006 budget request, the Administration proposed a total of $3.36 billion for federal homeland security assistance—$250 million less that FY2005. Further, according to the CRS report, this would reduce funding for equipment, training, exercises and planning.

On interoperability, a top priority for most local jurisdictions, the money allocated for interoperability is lumped together with all other equipment authorized by DHS. At this time, the National Governors Association reports that as of August 2004, only 22% of the states participating in the survey have developed statewide interoperable communications—73% are still in the process of developing interoperability but are hampered by the "dual challenges of funding and time." According to CRS, "One might assume that because DHS has not provided a separate funding source or a specific amount of grant funding for communications equipment, the department does not recognize the state and local need for interoperable communications."

Are these issues getting through to the Secretary? Years after 9/11 it still seems that input by local officials is haphazard and often rushed. The tight timelines imposed on DHS by Administrative order seem to force those creating policies to demand extremely tight turnaround. Many would say it is hurting the final products.

Chertoff also referenced the National Response Plan as the Department's effort to "more effectively map out how to handle crisis situations." A huge subset of that, of course, is the National Incident Management System. According to the DHS website, the NIMS will enable responders at all levels to work together more effectively to manage domestic incidents no matter what the cause, size or complexity. They tout the benefits of NIMS to include:

  • Standardized organizational structures, processes and procedures;
  • Standards for planning, training and exercising, and personnel qualification standards;
    Equipment acquisition and certification standards;
  • Interoperable communications processes, procedures and systems;
  • Information management systems; and
  • Supporting technologies—voice and data communications systems, information systems, data display systems and specialized technologies.

Yet again for locals, much of this causes major heartburn. How will these things become "standardized"? Who determines the "standard"? And with groups like public works, sheriffs and even emergency medical services folks still trying to forge their place at the state table—when and how will those "stove pipes" be dismantled?

All of these valid questions are further confused by some efforts in Congress purportedly meant "to help." The first complicating factor is that Congress has, at the behest of some local groups, latched on to the fact that DHS is slow to deliver state and local funds. Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) sent a letter to Secretary Chertoff on June 13 criticizing the Department for "letting federal dollars sit in the Treasury in Washington, D.C."

But pouring money on state and locals is not the only answer. Pushing the money down from the federal level is the first step, but it hardly addresses the bottlenecks at the state level where local officials are again faced with priorities and decisions that have been made, but not shared.

Many jurisdictions, through the first flush of cash, are now reassessing their priorities and attempting to plan more deliberately and, many times, more globally. Since DHS has yet to allocate funding to states and localities based on risk, another state and local homeland security issue remains: what risk factors to use in determining the allocation of federal homeland security assistance. One APWA member told me that his city had gone through a complete vulnerability assessment for the Buffer Zone Protection funds, yet when the officials from the Department of Homeland Security arrived, their conclusions were completely different and all the "critical infrastructure" identified by the city was reprioritized. Clearly, local jurisdictions are having a very difficult time figuring out the federal formula for "risk" and what it means for their communities.

And there are practical considerations as well. Spending across the country is bogged down by a combination of administrative problems, back orders for equipment and long timelines to implement new technologies.

As the media tries to pin the tail on the blame donkey, it's not easy to find a clear scapegoat. Local authorities argue that the media only counts funds after they've been spent rather than when they are obligated. For example, in a report by the Washington Post entitled "Most Area Terrorism Funding Not Spent," officials from the D.C. government say they have "committed 80 percent of their funds, or $115 million, to projects underway for the District and its suburbs in Maryland and Northern Virginia."

So how will the comprehensive review of the DHS help improve the lack of planning, coordination, and execution found between the Department and localities across the country? We may find out at the end of July when the Secretary plans to release his recommendations to Congress. Or we may just hear more on "risk-based" funding allocations and continue to wonder exactly what that means for us.