Funds for regional disaster preparedness facing cuts

If a large-scale terror attack were to occur in the Port of Baltimore, responders from Carroll and other counties would be able to coordinate assistance efforts with city responders — thanks in large part to the region's Central Maryland Area Radio Communications system.

When the H1N1 flu virus posed serious threats to the area's population in 2009, jurisdictions in the region — including Carroll — collectively stockpiled the drug Tamiflu in case of an epidemic.

And just recently, Carroll County's small Office of Public Safety doubled its staff — from two to four people.

In the past decade, the region has been equipped with hundreds of emergency resources and capabilities, such as these above, and experts agree these efforts have vastly improved the ability of jurisdictions to respond to potential disasters or attacks as a collective body.

The funding stream for many of those improvements, however, appears about to be choked off.

The Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant program of the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has poured almost $103 million into the region since 2003 — including almost $3.5 million for Carroll County — has lost a significant portion of its funding.

Emergency preparedness officials throughout the region say a $1 billion federal cut to the DHS grant program in December will likely leave Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano no choice but to cut the Baltimore security initiative to zero when she announces the department's grant priorities later this month.

"Pretty much, our office is on the line," said Marianne Souders, emergency management planner for Carroll County's Office of Public Safety and MEMA vice president.

Souders, whose office is in the County Office Building in Westminster, said the UASI funding currently covers the personnel costs for everyone in her office except Emergency Management Coordinator Jim Weed.

Only the 10 most threatened cities in the nation — a list that includes Washington, New York and Los Angeles, but not Baltimore — are expected to retain UASI funding.

Other grant funding will still come into the state through the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, and $8 million that the Baltimore UASI received in 2011 — more than $360,000 of came to Carroll — won't run out until 2014, officials said.

But defunding the Baltimore region UASI would still result in large and immediate effects — throwing into question the region's future ability to adequately and cohesively prepare for natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

"I think it's catastrophic," said Bob Maloney, director of the Baltimore Mayor's Office of Emergency Management and chair of the Baltimore Urban Area Work Group, which oversees and controls the UASI funding. Carroll County is a member of that work group.

"It's not a cutback, it's a decimation," he said.

Feds: 'Get used to it'

Officials say that aside from halting plans for future enhancements to the region's emergency infrastructure, cutting UASI funding would also divert maintenance costs for all programs, resources and staffing the program has already funded — including radio systems, mobile command units and armored personnel vehicles, as well as local emergency office staffers.

Without money to pay for maintenance costs, many of the investments made in recent years to bridge gaps in the region's emergency preparedness would be lost, with training initiatives and staffing positions being cut and physical resources becoming outdated or falling into disrepair, officials said.

"What we're going to have to do is look for, hopefully, state help. I don't think we're going to be able to sustain anything locally," Maloney said.

But the state itself is facing a deficit, and MEMA's continued funding from the Department of Homeland Security will likely be spread thin this year as well, said Edward McDonough, a MEMA spokesman.

"Inasmuch as we're already going to be struggling to maintain what we can for the entire gamut of counties (we serve), we probably would not be in a position to make up for any loses they had," McDonough said.

According to Steve Davis, founder and owner of the Columbia-based emergency management and homeland security consulting consortium All Hands Consulting, the writing is on the wall for cities like Baltimore, which sit below New York and Washington in the UASI funding structure.

Davis said that after prioritizing the nation's "Tier I" cities with the highest-profile targets and vulnerabilities, FEMA is "basically telling (lower-priority cities) to get used to it — there's less money available and they're going to be focused on the things with the most return on investment," he said.

A lasting legacy

Despite criticisms from some in Congress that the UASI funding was poorly spent in some cases nationally, members of the Baltimore Urban Area Work Group say they are proud of its record putting the funding toward programs and resources that made the region safer and more prepared.

There are many things that came out of the work group that will last, said Souder, who is on the work group's executive committee — chief among them relationships forged between emergency officials across the region.

"I would hope that we could still collaborate," she said.

Still, cuts could mean an end to a program that did much to protect the region, and at a time when threats continue, Maloney said.

"My own personal belief — and I think the belief of a lot of my colleagues— is that the threat hasn't decreased at all.

"It's increasing," he said, "and to cut back the funds seems to all of us to be premature. I could see if it was a gradual reduction, but it's like the spigot of funding has been shut off."

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