WASHINGTON, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency will recruit and train an army of 400,000 Citizen Corps volunteers in medical care and other skills to be at the ready for the next possible terrorist attack, FEMA Director Joe M. Allbaugh told United Press International on Tuesday.
The plan is to harness the patriotic spirit Americans feel in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and it reflects new responsibilities for FEMA as the agency takes center stage in the war on terrorism with ramped-up budgets and power in the federal government.
"Everyone wants to help," Allbaugh told UPI. "This is a great mechanism for Americans."
"The idea is that we would have 400,000 new trained volunteers over the next couple of years."
FEMA is poised to launch recruitment efforts for the volunteers and dispense a massive $3.5 billion in grants to local emergency agencies unveiled in President Bush's new budget proposal.
In an interview with UPI, Allbaugh for the first time laid out the scope of the program and the size of the volunteer corps. He said the role designated for his agency in Bush's 2003 security plan will virtually transform FEMA and double its budget to $6.5 billion, making it the go-to agency for helping state and local governments prepare for terrorist attacks and other emergencies.
Allbaugh said his agency would absorb the Justice Department Office of National Preparedness, and at FEMA this office is already working on plans to help recruit, train and field the citizen volunteers across America and dole out grant money to states.
This would be the largest federally led volunteer effort since the Air Raid wardens of World War II and will enlist the outpouring of private citizens anxious to take part in the defense of their country.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, this relatively little known agency became key to Bush's effort to protect Americans against terrorist attack and his main connection to the heroic "first responders," the firefighters, police and emergency technicians, who led the rescues.
"I work directly for the president of the United States," Allbaugh explains, "so he has a person, when an incident takes place, he can pick up the phone and say, 'What is going on? What are we doing? How are we responding to this?' I am that person."
With the new directions ordered by Bush, "We have an opportunity to become the agency that FEMA can be," Allbaugh said from his office in southwest Washington. "We can't miss this opportunity."
Under Bush's budget proposal released Monday, the agency will become the sole source of a $3.5 billion flood in grants to state and local government "first responders" and will oversee the establishment of a new army of citizen volunteers, designed after the Peace Corps to be called the Citizen Corps.
Allbaugh has been for a decade one of the president's closest advisers, serving Bush as chief of staff when Bush was governor of Texas and Bush's National Campaign manager during the campaign.
With his cowboy boots, close-cropped hair and easy-going style, the native of Oklahoma jokes that he just "doesn't fit in" in Washington. But his figure became familiar at Ground Zero in New York and the other hotspots of the terrorist attack.
In a lengthy interview in his spacious Washington office, Allbaugh said FEMA was dedicated to a central and expanding role making sure the country takes whatever steps are necessary to be ready when and if the next disaster comes.
"This is just the first step of many steps to come," Allbaugh said of Bush's aggressive agenda for FEMA. "We are better off than we were on Sept. 11. But it is a baby step. We still have a long way to go."
Bush has proposed increasing FEMA's budget by 114 percent. Most of that money comes in grants to state and local "first responders." Allbaugh said Tuesday his agency will actually increase in size relatively little as he commits his staff to getting that money "out the door" to the states.
"I want to get that money out the door and on the street and not have it sucked up in government bureaucracy," Allbaugh said.
In the rush to revamp Bush's budget in the months after Sept. 11, Allbaugh acknowledged Tuesday that the agency had not decided the criteria for doling out the unprecedented funds, but he said giving state and local governments the utmost flexibility deciding how to use the money will be the hallmark of the plan.
The current plan is to send $105 million to states for planning, $2 billion for equipment, $1.1 billion for training and $245 million on exercises to help get ready for disasters. The agency will try to move 75 percent to 85 percent of that money to states and local governments next fiscal year.
FEMA would train community leaders like fire officials and police officers on how to train other volunteers. Those leaders would, in turn, train other community volunteers in emergency medical care and other skills.
He said that initially the agency will use its training facility in Emmitsburg, Md., and later may open training centers in other parts of the country.
Workers at the Department of Justice will move to FEMA's Office of National Preparedness to help dole out the grants and manage Citizen Corps and Allbaugh said FEMA might also receive parts of DOJ's "Office of Justice Programs" that helps prepare for attacks by weapons of mass destruction.
"That, for the time being, is at DOJ," Allbaugh said. "But there is a possibility it'll move here."
(Horrock is UPI's Chief White House Correspondent and Benjamin is UPI's Congressional Bureau Chief.)