Federal funding for regional disaster preparedness in doubt

If a tanker truck full of dangerous chemicals flipped on Interstate 695 in Baltimore County, a locally based, highly trained and well-equipped hazardous materials unit would be able to respond in a flash.

When the H1N1 flu virus posed serious threats to the area's population in 2009, jurisdictions in the region — including Baltimore County — were able to collectively stockpile 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 Baltimore County and other local jurisdictions 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, a move that one local disaster manager called "catastrophic."

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 more than $12.6 million for Baltimore County – 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 $390,000 of which went to Baltimore County, won't run out until 2014, officials said.

But the expected defunding of the Baltimore UASI program, which includes Baltimore County and Baltimore City, Annapolis and Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, will still result in significant 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."

"It's not only about the money. It's about the cooperation, the sharing, the agreements," said Mark Hubbard, director of the Baltimore County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and a member of the work group's executive committee, on the legacy of the program now under threat.

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 fall 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 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, officials 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, many said.

Concerns remain, though, and not just from government types.

Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said the effects of DHS cutting Baltimore UASI funding would be felt on a community level as well.

Over the years, Baltimore UASI funding has helped Jewish institutions throughout the region increase their security with alarms, lighting, fences and other security measures, Abramson said.

The end to that funding "will mean that further upgrades to security needs at various institutions will not be met as readily as they are now," he 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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