The United States is dangerously unprepared for another major terror strike, with local police, fire and other emergency personnel unable and generally ill-trained for dealing with another Sept. 11-sized attack, according to a report published Sunday by the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Drastically Underfunded, Dangerously Unprepared” says that:
- On average, fire departments across the country have only enough radios to equip half the firefighters on a shift, and breathing apparatuses for only one third. Only 10 percent of fire departments in the United States have the personnel and equipment to respond to a building collapse.
- Police departments in cities across the country do not have the protective gear to safely secure a site following an attack with weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
- Public health labs in most states still lack basic equipment and expertise to adequately respond to a chemical or biological attack, and 75 percent of state laboratories report being overwhelmed by too many testing requests.
- Most cities do not have the necessary equipment to determine what kind of hazardous materials emergency responders may be facing.
If the nation does not take immediate steps to better identify and address the urgent needs of emergency responders, the next terrorist incident could have an even more devastating impact than the September 11 attacks.
Moreover, the various local first-response agencies around the country will by underfunded by $98.4 billion over the next five years if the current funding levels are maintained.
Currently, the Homeland Security Department and other federal agencies spend about $5.4 billion a year on first responders, according to the Washington Post. The study says they should be spending about $25 billion annually to do the job.
The federal government will spend about $27 billion on first responders over the next five years, and the hard-to-forecast state and local agencies will spend between $26 billion and $76 billion, according to the report.
The budgetary figures were developed with the Concord Coalition and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The Council’s report is a follow-up to the Council’s previous report, “America — Still Unprepared, Still in Danger” published in October 2002 and researched by the Council-sponsored Independent Task Force on Homeland Security, co-chaired by former Sens. Warren B. Rudman, R-N.H.ï¿½and Gary Hart, D-Colo. The current report was authored by the Independent Task Force on Emergency Responders and was chaired by Rudman.
“I believe in the next five years — can’t tell you when, where, what or how — there will be an attack,” Rudman told Tim Russet Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“And, God forbid, it’s an attack with either chemical or biological or worse, some sort of nuclear device. We are not prepared to deal with that.”
CFR president Leslie Gelb echoes that sentiment in his forward:
It is likely that a terrorist group somewhere in the world is developing plans to attack the United States and/or American interests abroad using chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or catastrophic conventional means. At the same time, diplomats, legislators, military and intelligence officers, police, fire and emergency medical personnel, and others in the Unites States and across the globe are working feverishly to prevent and prepare for such attacks. These two groups of people are ultimately in a race with one another. This is a race we cannot afford to lose.
According to the New York Times, Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said Sunday that the additional $98 billion recommended by the council report for first responders is “grossly inflated.”
This report comes on the heels of blatant partisanship. Last Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed the first of 13 appropriation bills that fund the federal government. This one dealt with the Department of Homeland Security. House Democrats complained of the short-changed first responders and said the bill fell “dangerously short” of what was needed. Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wisc., offered an amendment that would have added $1 billion for police and firefighters, paid for by reducing the amount of the 2004 tax cut for those earning more than $1 million a year from $88,326 to $83,326. The Republicans, ruling the amendment out of order, defeated it in a party-line vote of 222-200.
“Do we trust President Bush and his team to set homeland-security policy, or do we think it should be set by the same members of Congress who voted against the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security in the first place?” asked DeLay. (Actually, it was Senate Democrats who first proposed the Department of Homeland Security and pushed and pushed for months until a reluctant White House finally caved.)
Leaving aside the noxious fact that someone making $1 million will get more than an $80,000 tax cut, what’s really out of order is that the DeLay Brigade refuses to ask its millionaire patrons to contribue $5,000 more a year each in an attempt to fund the people who protect and serve those millionaires. (You know, even Obey’s proposed $83,326 taxcut is way more than the average yearly salary of a police officer, firefighter or emergency medical worker. Just think how much the first responders would get if the tax cuts were actually realistic and sane.)
So this lack of funding is not a great surprise. The Bush 2004 budget cuts benefits to veterans and active duty soldiers, services the poor and middle-class depend on and gives short shrift to just about every environmental initiative going. Americorps is on its last legs, thanks to spending cuts and the Medicare initiative is a bait-and-switch to get the elderly to move into private HMOs. And while Bush says one thing — “I’ll make America safer” — his actions are a combination of ruinous foreign policy that destabilizes the world and a domestic national security agenda that attacks basic civil rights, ignores vulnerabilities such as ports, border crossings and stabs stressed out, underfunded police and firefighters in the back. All this while his Republican allies in Congress wrap themselves in the twin flags of hypocrisy and selective amnesia whenever someone tries to do what’s right — even if it’s only $5,000 worth of rightness.
There is no excuse this time if (when?) another terror strike catches the nation unaware. One can almost buy the White House’s failure of imagination regarding Sept. 11 — if you’re feeling generous, which I’m not. But if (when?) another attack kills large numbers of Americans, Bush, thanks to his asinine spending priorities and gnat-like attention span, will be an accessory to murder.