Friday, May 30, 2008

State officials puzzled about IED directive

Grant guidelines to help prepare Maryland for terror threats

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Dan Gross⁄The Gazette
The federal Department of Homeland Security releases a new set of requirements on how to spend grants every year. ‘‘One of the challenges both state and local governments face is there’s no continuity from year to year,” Montgomery County Department of Homeland Security Director Gordon Aoyagi said. ‘‘... That inconsistency is very frustrating to local governments.”
Maryland homeland security officials say the federal Department of Homeland Security is requiring them to prepare for terror threats that might not occur using ‘‘arbitrary” spending requirements.

In February, DHS issued grant guidelines requiring that any federal funding awarded to a state had to be spent on dealing with improvised explosive devices.

While IEDs are a common threat in Iraq, area homeland officials say they are unsure why the federal government made IEDs the focus of attention this year.

State and county governments surrounding Washington invested in bomb disposal vehicles, equipment and training last year partly as a response to the terrorist bomb attacks in Madrid and London.

Now state officials are wondering whether that investment will be counted toward DHS’ spending requirement for this year or if the state and counties would have to spend more money to deal with bombs, said Andy Lauland, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s homeland security advisor.

DHS is running a competition among states for federal funds with 70 percent of the points based on assessed security risk and 30 percent on proposals submitted for peer review.

A DHS spokeswoman asked for questions to be e-mailed to the agency but did not return calls by deadline.

States will find out in August or September how much money the state will be awarded, with the stipulation that 25 percent of it be spent to deal with IEDs. In Maryland, the money passes through the state to counties and municipalities.

‘‘To say you have to spend 25 percent, it’s very, very arbitrary to say 25 percent,” Lauland said.

Each year the federal agency issues new requirements on how to spend the grants, which makes long-term planning difficult for counties, Montgomery County Department of Homeland Security Director Gordon A. Aoyagi said.

‘‘The real challenge I think we have in dealing with terrorism is the threat envelope is forever expanding,” Aoyagi said.

Emergency management officials, he said, constantly have to develop new contingency plans to deal with the threats — from natural causes such as hurricanes and flooding, pandemics such as avian flu, and possible terrorist attacks.

Last year the federal emphasis was on the interoperability of communication systems between jurisdictions so different departments could communicate with each other, Aoyagi said.

‘‘That’s a long-term investment to make sure all systems work,” he said. ‘‘We’ve done a lot of that in the Washington area. And then suddenly there’s a switch now to focus on improvised explosive devices and terrorism prevention. And you have to say, ‘What happened to the previous priority?’ You do what you can.”

Emergency officials also said DHS too often seems to take a one-size-fits-all approach without taking into account different needs and different potential hazards in different communities.

At some point meeting the federal guidelines goes from planning for realistic scenarios to ‘‘planning to just be planning,” Aoyagi said.

‘‘One of the challenges both state and local governments face is there’s no continuity from year to year,” Aoyagi said. In budgeting for the new interoperable communications equipment, selecting a vendor and installation takes years. ‘‘Then the next year they say a significant amount of your money should go to IEDs. That inconsistency is very frustrating to local governments.”

Another frustration is that while terrorism projects can receive funding, equipment that could assist for other emergencies such as a hazardous material spill receive lower priorities even though they can be just as dangerous and have a greater likelihood of occurring, said Steve Welzant, emergency planner for Baltimore County Department of Homeland Security.

‘‘We still need money for the things we know are going to happen,” he said. ‘‘I know in Baltimore County we can use a new hazardous material vehicle, but that’s not given a high priority.”