Funding for regional disaster operations on chopping block

When Howard County decided it wanted a system for disseminating emergency information to its citizens via text message, it tapped into a pool of federal funding to create NotifyMeHoward, which launched in November.

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

And if a large-scale terrorist attack were to occur in the Port of Baltimore, emergency responders from Howard and other local counties would be able to quickly coordinate assistance efforts with city responders, thanks in large part to the region's interoperable Central Maryland Area Radio Communications system.

In the last decade, the Baltimore region has been equipped with hundreds of emergency resources and capabilities, like those above, that experts agree have vastly improved the ability of local 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 $7.5 million for Howard — has lost a significant portion of its funding.

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

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 DHS grant funding will still come into the state through the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, and the $8 million in funding the Baltimore UASI program received in 2011, more than $885,000 of which went to Howard, won't run out until 2014, officials said.

But the expected defunding of the Baltimore UASI program, which includes Howard and Baltimore City, Annapolis and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties, will still result in large and immediate effects, they said.

Specifically, they said, it will throw 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 Mayor's Office of Emergency Management in Baltimore and chair of the Baltimore Urban Area Work Group, which oversees and controls the UASI funding. "It's not a cutback, it's a decimation."

"Shouldering things on our own, that'll put a strain on us," said Ryan Miller, deputy director of Howard's Office of Emergency Management and a member of the work group's executive committee.

Feds: 'Get used to it'

Aside from halting plans for future enhancements to the region's emergency infrastructure, the loss of UASI funding would also divert maintenance costs for all the programs, resources and staffing the program has already funded — the radio system, the mobile command units and armored personnel vehicles, the local emergency office staffers — back to the local jurisdictions using them.

Without the money to pay for those 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.

State help, however, may be unlikely. The state itself is strapped for cash and facing a deficit, and MEMA's continued funding from DHS — which has to be allocated to jurisdictions throughout the state, from Garrett County to Ocean City — 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.

In closed-door conversations with officials from "Tier II" cities, as they are known, FEMA officials are not parsing their words when discussing their strategy of responding to budget cuts by prioritizing the nation's "Tier I" cities with the highest-profile targets and vulnerabilities, said Davis, who lives in Allview Estates and founded the National UASI Conference in 2005.

"They're basically telling people 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," Davis said.

Among Tier II city officials, "everyone assumes there will be attrition in (emergency) capability over time, if not immediately," Davis said.

A lasting legacy

Still, local officials aren't completely demoralized.

Despite criticisms from some in Congress that the UASI funding was poorly spent in some cases nationally, the Baltimore work group is proud of its record putting the funding toward regionally-minded programs and resources that are used often and made the region safer and more prepared, Miller said.

There are many things that came out of the work group that will last, chief among them the relationships forged between emergency officials throughout the region, Miller said.

"They've now got this Rolodex of their peers that they never had before," he said.

But even those relationships will suffer when the funding drops off, he and others said.

"That was one of the best things that I hope these communities maintain, but I fear that they won't once there's no money on the table to bring them together," Davis said.

In all, the looming cuts would mean an end to a program that did so much to protect the region, and at a time when threats continue to increase, 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, and to cut back the funds seems to all of us to be premature," he said. "...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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