WASHINGTON — — Local homeland security officials in Baltimore and across the country are fighting a proposal to change how $2 billion in federal emergency management money is distributed — a change they say would jeopardize regional efforts to respond to terrorist attacks, major storms and other disasters.
The proposal by the Obama administration would require local governments to compete more for homeland security money rather than receiving it based on population and risk. It also would shift oversight to states, taking control away from major cities and their surrounding counties.
The Baltimore region received $8 million in homeland security funding last year, including nearly $5 million in Urban Area Security Initiative grants used for regional preparedness projects. Though the funding is diminishing — it has fallen from roughly $17 million three years ago — local officials say it has paid for critical improvements.
In the Baltimore area, for instance, the money has been used for communications improvements, including development of a public safety radio system that can be accessed by multiple firefighter and police departments. The system — and the broader effort to plan for catastrophe as a region — was partly a response to the 2001 Howard Street Tunnel fire and the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The nature of funding, when it's on the table, is that it can bridge gaps," said Bob Maloney, the head of Baltimore's emergency management office. He told lawmakers on Capitol Hill recently that the federal proposal could prompt neighboring cities and counties to "outdo one another, rather than work together."
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, who want Congress to approve the changes by fall, counter that the proposal will streamline a grant process that has become unwieldy. Consolidating the 16 separate grant programs into one will get the money out the door more quickly and shouldn't hamper regional planning, they argue.
"We believe that these coordination groups are the backbone of successful regional projects and they should remain in place in order for [the program] to be successful," said FEMA spokesman Lars Anderson.
The push for funding for a regional approach to disaster planning is not new. As mayor of Baltimore, Gov. Martin O'Malley repeatedly sought to have the city considered part of the Washington-area homeland security zone, a designation he said would have improved disaster planning. It also would have meant more homeland security funding for Baltimore.
State officials in Maryland and elsewhere have offered guarded assessments of the plan. A spokeswoman for O'Malley — who as mayor captured national headlines for railing against homeland security spending cuts during the Bush years — said the administration is monitoring the proposal.
"Generally, we're supportive of the effort to reform," said spokeswoman Raquel Guillory.
David Paulison, a FEMA director under President George W. Bush, said he supports the general outlines of the consolidation plan, but noted that no one yet knows what portion of the money would be allocated through competition. Still, local governments would not likely be precluded from planning together just because the money to pay for those efforts is taking a different route, he said.
"We have so many different grants out there, and if you look at the eligible expenses for all those grants, they're very similar," said Paulison, now a consultant who helps governments apply for federal funding. "What I see them trying to do is say, 'Let's have one pot of money.'"
But the proposal, outlined in a "vision document" released by the department in February, has sparked an outcry from mayoral administrations in New York, Philadelphia, Tampa, Fla., and elsewhere. Speaking before the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications last month, Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter predicted that the competitive grants would "pit cities, counties and states against each other for funding."
In Baltimore, officials have used the money in recent years to expand radio networks that allow agencies to talk to one another, which was not easy to do before. The funding will help pay for an upgrade to the radio system this year, extending coverage to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the Amtrak train corridor through Anne Arundel County, Maloney said.
Emergency crews received high marks for their response to the tunnel fire in Baltimore in 2001, but a U.S. Transportation Department report a year later found that "communications between responding agencies were not as effective as might be desired." Some of the agencies that responded to the blaze, the study found, first heard about it via news media reports.
The security funding has also been used to create a regional patient-tracking system that family members and law enforcement officials can use to find people who have been injured and hospitalized during a major incident. Previously, the state of Maryland tracked such patients by hand, on paper.
"I think that 9/11 taught us to … think forward and be prepared," Maloney said, arguing that it is difficult for the public to assess when their government is unprepared — until it's too late. "We'll know if something happens and we don't respond to it."