The nation's switchover to digital television in 2009 soon will yield benefits to states still scurrying to enable firefighters, police and other local and federal emergency officials to communicate during a crisis.
States can start applying in mid-July for the first small slice of $1 billion that will be set aside from the Federal Communication Commission's upcoming sale of licenses for the public airwaves that currently carry free, over-the-air television signals. Those TV frequencies will be turned over to new uses as the nation switches to all-digital TV broadcasts by a Feb. 17, 2009, deadline set by Congress.
The extra $1 billion in new federal funds will be targeted at helping state and local governments upgrade their public communications networks so that first responders can talk to each other and to other key players during an emergency.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks exposed the tragic consequences of not having systems in place for firefighters, police and emergency medical technicians to communicate with each other as the World Trade Center's twin towers burned and then tumbled. Rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 also were hampered by communication failures.
In a report released last month on first responders and emergency communications, the Government Accountability Office concluded that - almost six years after the Sept. 11 attacks - "no national plan was in place to coordinate investments across states."
The four states the GAO examined - Florida, Kentucky, New York and Oregon - had "generally not used strategic plans to guide investments toward broadly improving interoperability," a term meaning coordination of their emergency communications, the report said. While crediting the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for requiring states to assemble statewide plans by the end of the year, the GAO said progress by states and localities could be "impeded" by the department's reduction in full-scale ergency exercises and its failure to ensure that states' grant requests were in line with their statewide plans.
Between fiscal 2003 and 2006, the Department of Homeland Security allocated nearly $2.7 billion to local communities and states for interoperable equipment and activities. Allocations for 2007 have yet to be announced.
Interoperability is not just about having the right radios or technology. It also involves establishing technical standards for how radios will be built and operate. And it requires setting protocols for how to communicate with and coordinate a broad spectrum of emergency, law enforcement and government agencies during a natural disaster or terrorist attack.
In mid-July, states will learn how much of the $1 billion from the FCC auction they will be eligible to apply for. On Sept. 1, states may receive up to 5 percent of their eligible grants to help them develop their statewide emergency communication plans. They will have until Sept. 30 to submit their designs.
States won't see the bulk of money until fiscal 2008, after the auction is concluded, and funds may continue to be distributed through the program until 2010.
The funds will be distributed through the Public Safety Interoperable Communications Grant Program , coordinated by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration , a branch of the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Homeland Security .
In February, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that in fiscal 2008, which will begin Oct. 1, a total of $3.2 billion would be available for first responders' needs in states and local communities including for emergency communications equipment and training. The figures are based on the $1 billion in grants financed by the airwaves auction plus the department's budget request for $2.2 billion in first-responder programs administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, although the funds have yet to be appropriated.
Nationwide, many states have spent a lot of the federal anti-terrorism grants received since 2001 on emergency communications equipment and training, according to homeland security officials.
But overall, federal homeland security funds for states have steadily declined since 2004. Anti-terrorism money to states and localities has slid from a high of $3.3 billion for fiscal 2004 to $2.5 billion in fiscal 2007. The president's budget requests $1.9 billion for fiscal 2008.
"They keep whittling away, whittling away. This year we're submitting a $39 million request for grants. If we get half of that we'll be lucky," said Larry Martines, director of Nevada Homeland Security.
Martines, who also serves as a homeland security adviser on a National Governors Association panel, said the frustration level is "quite high" among governors, homeland security directors and first responders. "As the funds or the grants shrink, people are saying 'Why?' They're not getting clear answers."
The key funding program for states is the Homeland Security Grant Program , an umbrella of five initiatives administered by the Department of Homeland Security that states rely on for a variety of anti-terrorism measures. States must disperse at least 80 percent of the funds to local governments.
Of the five funding plans, states particularly look to the State Homeland Security Program as a gauge of federal commitment. The program, which supports equipment, planning and training to prepare for and reduce the impact of terrorist attacks, has been dramatically slashed. In 2004, Congress appropriated $1.7 billion for the program. It is now funded at $509 million for fiscal 2007, and the president's budget calls for only $187 million for fiscal 2008 - an 89 percent reduction since 2004, according to an analysis by Federal Funds Information for States (FFIS), a nonpartisan financial research organization.
Garner Girthoffer, policy associate for the National Conference of State Legislatures , said the reduction in this program over the last several years remains one of NCSL's "major concerns" because those funds go directly to the state and not to a city or to local law enforcement agencies.
The Department of Homeland Security's methodology for making grants relies on a broad range of issues, including the threat to different areas of the country, the concentration of people, critical infrastructure, economic productivity, border crossings, as well as defense and industrial bases, said David Kaufman, an official with FEMA 's National Preparedness Directorate, which oversees these grant programs.
The U.S. House and Senate both passed homeland security bills this year that move towards more risk-based allocations, but big differences remain in how the House and Senate view grants to states. Both houses still need to reconcile differences in the bills.
According to an FFIS ranking, Washington, D.C., for the second year ranked first in per-capita receipt of anti-terrorism grants from four of the federal funds with the equivalent of $98.12 per person in fiscal 2006. Vermont was the runner-up with $17.51. (A ranking by the Congressional Research Service had ranked Wyoming first in per-capita funding in fiscal 2005, while FFIS ranked Wyoming second that year.)
"Population isn't always a good indicator of where you need to possess capability," said Kaufman. A case in point, he said, is that the Sept. 11 hijackers did some training and preparation in areas outside of the large metro areas that they ultimately targeted.
In a recent issue brief by the Brookings Institution think tank, researcher Jeremy Shapiro said state and local governments still have not been "well-integrated into federal efforts" almost six years after Sept. 11. A prime example is that state and local governments tasked with protecting their communities still are not involved in federal intelligence operations, he said.
The report concludes that both states and the federal government have been overspending on homeland security. "Many states, which probably don't share the same assessment of the terrorist threat, have seen it as a good way to get greater federal spending in their state," Shapiro said. This has been reinforced by the political influence wielded by members of Congress focused on getting their share for their state.