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Red (Tape) Advisory

Local Homeland Security director decries funding snafus

Ray DeMichiei talks fast. Pittsburgh's chief of homeland security moves fast, too, even during an interview, frequently springing from his swivel chair to grab a file or point out something on a wall chart. It's easy to see how DeMichiei would get aggravated by something like needing most of a year to get the federal Department of Homeland Security to let him host a seminar on preventing terrorism against surface transporation.

"It's wholly frustrating," says DeMichiei, Pittsburgh's Emergency Management Agency deputy director and (officially) WMD Coordinator. "I come from an operations background: Do it, get it done."

But the DHS seminar, now scheduled here for mid-November, isn't the only thing about his job that frustrates the former city paramedic. According to DiMichiei, the billions of dollars that President Bush regularly touts is making America safer has largely remained outside the grasp of most major cities, Pittsburgh included. And it's not even a question of this year's funds; DeMichiei says he's still trying to get access to millions the city was entitled to in 2003.

It's an ironic position for a city that once, arguably, was ahead of the curve. DeMichiei's been at his job some 15 years; in 2000, after Congress beefed up anti-terror mandates, Pittsburgh held a terror-response exercise in Steel Plaza, pre-dating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by a full year.

But keeping up with post-9/11 security demands is a struggle. DeMichiei's biggest headache is the funding process Congress set up: Most of the money for training and equipment for first responders and other personnel is filtered through the state government, which he says hasn't kept pace with local needs for training and equipment. "They go through their stupid procurement process and it's horrific," he says.

Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are part of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Counterterrorism Task Force -- one of nine such regional task forces in the state, and known as Region 13 because it includes 13 counties (plus the City of Pittsburgh) required to do joint anti-terror planning. DeMichiei says the state wouldn't even accept the city's requests for about $6.5 million in 2003 funds for one program, the Urban Areas Security Initiative, until March 2004. The city is still working on getting some $9.5 million in 2004 UASI funds.

And then there are problems such as the one with the fit-testers -- the devices used to detect leaks in respirators issued to emergency personnel. DeMichiei says Region 13 was told to select its desired model. "We ordered that and the state says, 'No you can't,'" he says -- that particular model wasn't on a list of approved purchases. The struggle to get the fit-tester began eight months ago -- and in the meantime the city has begun simply issuing the masks, without fit-testing, to personnel including Pittsburgh police. "Something's better than nothing," says DeMichiei.

Federal anti-terror funds are dispersed via the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, whose spokesperson, Maria Smith, disputes DiMichiei's assessment. Smith says that in 2003, some $19 million was earmarked for Region 13, and that it's all been spent. And she says the 2004 money, about $23 million, will be spent as soon as the task force submits its equipment list. (DiMichiei counters that while the state may have allocated the funds, state-level bureaucratic delays have kept the equipment from reaching the locals.)

"We do have problems with vendors," says Smith. "All 50 states are ordering the same type of equipment ... as well as the military." Asked about the fit-testers Region 13 requested, Smith kicks responsibility to Washington. "They're not our lists, they're DHS lists," she says. "If they're not on that list, we can't purchase it."

Federal anti-terror funds are allocated inequitably, say critics. Congress gives 0.75 percent of the total (some $1.7 billion) to each state and the District of Columbia, and allocates the remainder on a per capita basis. Thus Wyoming gets more money per inhabitant than densely inhabited, industrially developed New Jersey. In 2003, according to the Census Bureau, Pennsylvania ranked third from last in DHS spending for salaries and wages, procurement contracts and grants. And what money that comes has been slow to arrive. In June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a survey indicating that three out of four big cities had yet to receive any funds at all from the single largest homeland-security program -- the same percentage as in a survey released in January. "Homeland-security money went to the states by Federal Express, but is moving to cities by Pony Express," says Hempstead, New York, Mayor Charles A. Garner, the group's president.

Another federal provision requires that cities fund anti-terror initiatives out of their own pockets, then seek reimbursement. That's a tall order for cash-strapped towns like Pittsburgh. DiMichiei adds that cities are hamstrung by Congressional limits on administrative spending: "We don't have the personnel to administer the dollars as we would like." Moreover, DiMichiei is loath to use grant money to fund stepped-up police presence at "critical infrastructure" including bridges, water-treatment plants and government buildings when the terror-alert level jumps because it will simply eat into money that otherwise could be used for training and equipment. "That's my objection to the feds. Robbing Pete to pay Paul."

And none of that even accounts for the time DeMichiei spends responding to things like massive flood remediation -- or what he calls the city's single biggest security expense right now: security for presidential-candidate appearances and motorcades, which can cost thousands in police manpower and overtime for a quick stop by George W. Bush or John Kerry.

A task force convened by Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge acknowledged many of the security-funding problems in its June report, and proposed solutions including scrapping the reimbursement requirement and expediting procurement processes.

Meanwhile, as equipment trickles in, as seminars happen, Pittsburgh's anti-terror efforts do advance. A rescheduled large-scale simulated terrorist attack, to be staged at PNC Park, is planned for May. And the city is accepting bids from consultants to create a Downtown evacuation plan -- a job estimated at $350,000 -- to avoid the sort of traffic jam that resulted on Sept. 11, 2001, when everyone tried to drive out of the Golden Triangle at once.

But the road to security is bumpy and winding. On DiMichiei's wall-sized office bulletin board hang eight letter-sized pages, comprising a 72-point chart of Region 13's goals for preventing, responding to and recovering from a terrorist attack, a process mandated by the federal Office of Domestic Preparedness. No. 12 requires that 50 percent of first-responders be trained to "awareness level," the lowest level of preparedness, by the third year of the program. The task force, says DiMichiei, still has no regional database of current training levels for such personnel. But it might not matter if it did: The ODP, DiMichiei says, is "still writing the training standards."

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