When Prince George’s County emergency crews arrived at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, responders found they couldn’t communicate with other agencies. The analog radios the county used weren’t compatible with the equipment being used by surrounding jurisdictions.
Ten years and a new digital radio system later, officials say the county’s police, firefighters and emergency services are well-prepared for another major incident, but maintaining funding for new equipment and initiatives is an ongoing challenge.
“The biggest piece [has been] to make sure that everyone communicates and coordinates with each other,” said Brian Moe, director of the county’s department of homeland security.
The county department, created in 2003, coordinates operations between first responders from different agencies.
"What we've been working towards since 9/11 is a coordinated effort to deal with emergencies. Not waiting until they happen, but being prepared," said County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D).
As part of this effort, the county has acquired a new, digital radio system that allows police, fire and other emergency units to communicate seamlessly with each other, as well as with similar systems used in other jurisdictions.
The system, which cost about $76 million, was rolled out earlier this year, allowing any large-scale incident to be smoothly overseen and coordinated, Moe said. The system was paid for with county funds and about $14 million in federal and state grants.
As emergency services responded to the Aug. 23 earthquake — which shook the ground as far away as Boston, and prompted more than 600 calls to Prince George’s 911 in a two-hour period — the radios performed very well, Moe said.
The county also purchased a new bomb squad truck and bomb-disposal robots; built a new 911 call center in Bowie; and developed Community Emergency Response Teams —groups of citizens trained to respond to major emergencies in their community.
But the radio system also highlights the continual struggle of emergency preparedness — making sure there’s enough money to stay prepared.
When the warranty on the new radio system runs out in about two years, for example, it’s likely the county will pay an additional $3 million to $4 million in annual maintenance costs, Moe said.
“You have to be able to sustain everything you purchase,” Moe said. “That’s an ongoing issue for everybody.”
Prince George’s receives between $5 million and $10 million from the federal government every year for homeland security initiatives, Moe said. The department’s adopted fiscal 2012 budget was about $28 million, including about $6 million in grants.
But an embattled Congress and weak economy mean federal funding for homeland security initiatives are starting to decrease, officials said.
Key grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have decreased in recent years, and further cuts could be on the horizon, said Matt Mayer, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“Nothing is sacred,” Mayer said.
Funding for the federal State Homeland Security Program, which provides money for state and local security projects, decreased from $861 million in fiscal 2008 to $526 million in fiscal 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website.
County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor, whose department’s bomb squad has received millions of dollars in new equipment since 9/11, said officials must be vigilant in finding funds. This means looking for grant opportunities outside of the common sources such as the FBI, Bashoor said, adding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which provides grants to protect drinking water utilities, was one example of such a source.
The county's ability to respond to large-scale emergencies is important to the security of the Washington, D.C., area, according to U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Dist. 4) of Fort Washington.
“The federal government must be a partner in meeting those demands — for equipment, personnel, communications and logistics. The current legislative and fiscal environment in Congress strains this partnership,” Edwards said in a statement. “Our delegation continues to work hard to secure support for communications and other equipment which are necessary in this security environment. We will need to fight even more vigorously to maintain our security edge.”
Baker also spoke of the need going forward for the county to seek funding not directly related to homeland security, but related to other public safety entities that protect the county, such as police, fire and the sheriff's office.
“We're going to be advocating very hard at the federal level for more dollars to come in,” Baker said.