WASHINGTON, Jan. 29 (UPI) -- The ability of first responders to deal with a terrorist attack remains inadequate despite some progress in addressing homeland security policy at the state and local levels, according to policymakers and other experts at a Washington, D.C. think tank forum today.
"There isn't any homeland security beyond that which existed before Sept. 11, except for the airports, which took forever and still isn't perfected," Rep. Sue Merick, R-N.C., said during her keynote speech at the forum at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"It is going to be tedious but we can't just pretend that it (the local threat) doesn't exist and go on as we have," she said.
However, Chris J. Furlow, director for state affairs at the White House Office of Homeland Security (now the Department of Homeland Security), said that significant progress has been made in addressing state and local anti-terror needs.
He pointed to the advisory panel of state and local officials established by the Office of Homeland Security -- which includes representatives from the offices of governors and attorneys general as well as local officials from around the country -- that will remain a part of policy planning efforts at the new agency.
In addition, Furlow cited the $1.1 billion in funding for bioterrorism-related activities the states received last year as proof that the Bush administration is acting on state-level terrorism issues. There is also another $3.5 billion in funding for state level anti-terrorism preparedness, which has not yet been dispersed due to Congressional inaction on the fiscal 2003 federal budget.
He also noted that the administration's fiscal 2004 budget proposal, to be released next Monday, retains President Bush's commitment to funding state and local terrorism preparedness efforts.
Furlow also noted that in July 2002, the Bush administration released a companion document to its National Strategy for Homeland Security, which addressed local and state needs.
Merick and other critics say these actions do not go far enough, and Furlow acknowledged that more work is needed.
"There is no question we have a long way to go," he said.
Arnold Howitt, director of the executive session on domestic preparedness at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said that many states and localities have actually initiated their own innovative plans to deal with potential terrorist attacks without federal assistance.
"I think there have been palpable gains in (local) preparedness in the last few years," said Howitt.
Howitt said it is primarily those cities and regions facing the highest threat of terrorist action that have taken steps to assess vulnerability to risk, diagnose weaknesses and integrate terrorism responses into their emergency planning systems.
In addition, he said that many regions and localities have conducted some training for first responders, which include fire, police emergency medical and hospital emergency personnel.
Despite this, Howitt and other local officials at the conference, such as Jim Kelly, assistant director of the New York State Office of Public Security, said that inadequate federal assistance has kept them from fully addressing the issue, and has slowed some efforts for which there is little money.
For instance, Merick, a former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., said that that since there is so much room for error among the many law enforcement, emergency planning and public health agencies that respond to an attack, more time and money must be put into coordinating inter-agency cooperation at the local, state and federal level.
Matt Morrison, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region, said at the forum that that while the primary policy focus remains on physical security, security of infrastructure -- 85 percent of which is private -- has largely been ignored by policy planners.
"Critical infrastructure is only marginally more secure than pre-Sept. 11," said Morrison, whose public-private partnership group addresses infrastructure security concerns across states in the Pacific Northwest and western Canadian provinces.
Citing the findings of an experiment conducted by his group last June, that tested participants' response to an attack on critical infrastructures in the Pacific Northwest, he said that systems like water and power grids are highly interdependent and not well understood by those in the public or private sector.
The test involved 150 representatives from 70 private and public sector organizations in the region, and was conducted by Morrison's group in conjunction with the U.S. Navy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Canadian Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness.
Morrison noted that these important resources remain highly vulnerable to attack.
because this issue remains largely unaddressed by local and federal emergency planning officials.
"There is a sense of real vulnerability and concern (at the state and local level) that needs to be addressed," said Morrison. "I only hope and pray it doesn't take another terrorist attack to get us moving."
Howitt acknowledged that although more action is needed, government financial constraints are an important factor in determining future action on these issues. He said that current federal and state-level budget deficits would limit the ability of lawmakers to provide the budgetary increases needed to make some of the necessary improvements at the state and local level.
In addition, he said that many of the problems that remain unaddressed are more difficult to deal with than the initial issues faced by policymakers. For example, Howitt said that a major initiative, like increasing the capacity of state and local emergency responders to deal with an attack would require changes to be made throughout local systems, not just at the top or in a small portions of an individual agency.
"We need a more integrated and interoperable capacity," said Howitt. "I think there are some aspects of this that make it extremely difficult to undertake. You have to drill those (new) programs down the bureaucracy, which is quite difficult."
In addition, he said the prospect for quick progress in these areas is limited because such efforts require federal guidance and financial support for important reforms such as standardizing communication policies across jurisdictions.
Furlow, however, said it is important to keep in mind that although anti-terror strategy has to remain local in many ways, the federal government must still take the lead on many issues for reforms to be effective.
"From the administration perspective, state and local governments are essential partners in homeland security," said Furlow. "(But) If we have the 18,000 jurisdictions all over the country going their own ways, there will be gaps."