In Fighting Terrorism, Look to the Ground
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
September 9, 2002
Author: Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy
The memory of Sept. 11, 2001, is filled not only with images of devastation but also of professional and personal courage - policemen steering survivors away from the devastation, firefighters running up a dark staircase, and EMS workers feverishly tending to the wounded. I remember watching the towers fall on television and thinking that we had just witnessed 25,000 deaths. But for the work of the people on the ground, I might have been right.
Since that day, those compelling images have been replaced by flowcharts and graphs. Washington has been mired in debate over how best to structure a proposed mega-agency to protect homeland security.We hear about how 70,000 federal workers from two dozen agencies will be redeployed beneath a single umbrella. There has been an almost endless fascination, some might say obsession, with the contours of a new Department of Homeland Security.
In time, the department - whatever it looks like - may help keep us safe from terrorists, but for now, we are left to ponder what will happen if America is targeted again.
While we wait and worry, we risk the chance of falling further behind on the ground - in America's cities and towns - where mayors, fire chiefs, police chiefs, public health officials, and other emergency responders contemplate the enormous challenge of preparing for a disaster in their own backyards. And they're doing it - at least for now - with a federal government distracted by the Department of Homeland Security and federal dollars that are slow to flow down to the grassroots.
In the days immediately after Sept. 11, it seemed that the message was crystal clear - international terrorism had arrived on American soil and we had better respond. That response would take shape by enhancing local and state capacities to better identify, arrest, and react to a host of internal threats - from bomb blasts to biological attacks. Giving first responders a sense of what needs to get done - the priorities they must set, the threats that may exist, and even the money to do it - appeared to be the real lessons of Sept. 11. Somehow, over the past year, those lessons have been lost as Washington became fixated on Homeland Security.
But as Congress debates the structural issues, it must not let the immediate needs of first responders go unnoticed. First, there is the question of money. While billions of dollars have been spent on counter-terrorism efforts on the federal level, little is trickling down to the local level. President Bush recently refused to spend $5.1 billion approved by Congress for domestic security, citing the flagging economy. Included in that sum is $50 million for equipment to ensure that emergency agencies, often operating on different wavelengths, can communicate at the same locale, a much needed remedy given New York's disastrous experience when fire and police officials found themselves without any ability to talk to their troops.
Second, first responders are waiting for specific directives from Washington on the appropriate priorities for localities. With budgets tight, local leaders have to make crucial decisions about the purchase of new equipment and the deployment of scant resources on the ground. But without a plan that takes into account what other cities, counties and states are doing, the decisions could prove to be tragically incorrect. After all, why should two adjacent counties attempt to establish biological investigation teams when neither has the capacity to respond effectively to a major chemical leak?
A report released last week by the Kennedy School of Government outlines a series of recommendations to enhance local preparedness for terrorism. Those recommendations include designing plans to protect critical infrastructure that might be targeted by terrorists in communities throughout the country, moving faster to rebuild and modernize the public health infrastructure in states and cities nationwide, utilizing the private sector as a partner in domestic preparedness, and accurately identifying the number of first responders who serve ''on call'' for several different units in order to maintain sufficient personnel in the event of an emergency.
While the federal government may play the most important role in trying to prevent terrorism (through military action, intelligence gathering and controlling our borders through immigration), once a terror attack occurs, it is the first responders who take center stage. And it is incumbent upon Congress and all of us to make sure they are prepared.
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