News

Homeland-security bake sale

There’s an old leftie bumper sticker about what a great day it would be
“when the army has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” But on the home
front, this is actually the situation many of California’s emergency workers
say they find themselves in: relying on volunteers and fund-raisers to keep
operating.

While first-responder units always have struggled to get enough funding,
many have been surprised to learn that billions of dollars in
homeland-security spending has often not allowed them to improve their
situations. That’s because these funds, by law, are distributed explicitly
to deal with terrorist threats, and state and local agencies are barred from
spending the money on things they would have bought anyway.

For instance, the Elk Grove-based Drowning Accident Rescue Team (DART) held
a barbecue last month to help them reach their $40,000 annual minimum goal
for equipment and maintenance. DART is a nonprofit that provides the only
underwater recovery and rescue team for Sacramento and five surrounding
counties. They would be one of the most important crews operating if the
Sacramento region’s most feared terrorist attack–a bombing against one of
the major dams–were to occur.

But the group’s recent effort to get homeland-security funds to buy a
$25,000 underwater sonar system came to naught, not because it wouldn’t be
extremely useful in the event of such a nightmare attack, but because it
would be useful in other situations as well. This includes the far likelier
scenario of Sacramento flooding by natural means.

“We didn’t find a close nexus with homeland-security funding,” said Lt. Paul
Tassone of Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, who is a
homeland-security liaison. “The problem is they would use that equipment on
any call. They wouldn’t just use it on homeland security.”

Tassone said there are scores of agencies around the state that rely on
volunteers and fund-raisers. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Search and
Rescue Team, for example, is a registered nonprofit that tries to raise
around $15,000 a year in private fund-raisers. This 60-volunteer team
includes skilled dog handlers, who would help locate both the living and the
dead in the rubble of a large explosion or earthquake.

Homeland-security funding has been in the news lately in the wake of a
report by the California state auditor. The report found that the state’s
ability to prepare for a major natural disaster or terrorist attack has been
undermined by red tape and unspent money. The report sparked a wave of
dueling press releases between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office and those
of a pair of Democratic legislators, Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, and
Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara. The report also said the state was
in danger of losing $239 million in federal homeland-security money.
However, Chris Bertelli, assistant deputy director of the California
Department of Homeland Security, said the state was in no danger of losing
this money. The bigger issue, he added, is a confusing and ever-evolving set
of rules coming from the federal government. While the goal of these reforms
has been to address charges that homeland security has wasted money, they
have made it difficult for those applying for funds.

“Since 9/11, every single year the federal government has made some sort of
change to the homeland security grant-funding process,” Bertelli said.

For those who don’t follow the process correctly, or fund the wrong types of
projects, the price is high, said Mike Smith, director of the Sacramento
Regional Office of Homeland Security. Homeland-security funds are
reimbursed, not simply distributed ahead of time. If an agency spends the
money incorrectly, they won’t be reimbursed, and may even be fined.

Smith says that his region has been held up as a model by federal homeland
security. They were one of the first to try to create a coherent funding
process around the tangle of different agencies asking for money.

This includes groups that, like DART, rely heavily on volunteers, Smith
said. Of the $1.3 million the Sacramento region received in the current
year, $769,000 went to volunteer-responder organizations like the Medical
Reserve Corps and Citizens Emergency Response units. Much of the goal, Smith
said, is to create a reserve of trained people who aren’t government
employees but would provide an effective response in the case of a
large-scale disaster.

This is not much of a consolation to DART’s president, Ron Roberts, who said
the group has been struggling financially since long before 9/11. It relies
on a team of 20 volunteer divers; Roberts said one of his most skilled and
experienced diver, Richard Morgan, is a pharmacist in his day job. Diving is
a highly specialized skill set, usually developed through years of practice
on one’s own time, Roberts said. These skills are completely different from
those needed by a beat cop, he noted. The same rules hold for many other
first responders, from dog handlers to search-and-rescue teams.

“Many of the first responders who are going to take over a scene for the
Department of Homeland Security, they’re volunteers,” Roberts said. “They
have day jobs. They don’t want to be police or firefighters.”

This volunteer status has kept DART scrambling to meet its equipment needs
during the nearly 25 years it has been in operation. Roberts said that each
diver goes down with about $5,000 worth of equipment on, including
specialized dive suits that can protect them from fuel spills and other
hazardous materials. They often make due with other department’s
hand-me-downs, such as two 11-year-old ambulances that were recently given
by the Sacramento Metro Fire Department.

The funding issues also go back to California’s fiscal crisis three years
ago, Roberts said, when the state cut some funds going to first responders.
This forced units like DART to stop being administered by the state’s Office
of Emergency Services, and instead become affiliated with local
law-enforcement agencies.

Tassone said he understands Roberts’ frustration, especially given that DART
is the most active dive team in the country, called out about 100 times a
year. He said the Department is looking for other sources of money to pay
for the sonar system.

“We are working within the means we have to provide financial support,”
Tassone said. “It’s not for lack of trying.”


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