THE MAGAZINE

DHS Funds to Boost Bomb Squads

By Joseph Straw

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) continue to be the terrorist’s weapon of choice. Thus the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has encouraged states to allocate a portion of this year’s State Homeland Security Program (SHSP) funding to counter-IED initiatives.

The funding may prove a boon to state bomb squads, but states have questions about whether that’s the best use of limited resources, given the absence of intelligence indicating an immediate IED threat domestically. Early confusion over exactly what portion of the funds had to go to IED-related efforts fueled some of the initial criticism.

In February, states received written grant application guidance stating that they should spend 25 percent of their total funding to “strengthen IED-related capabilities” and to “strengthen preparedness planning.” Some state officials interpreted this language to mean that a full 25 percent of the year’s grants had to be spent on IED initiatives.

DHS has since clarified that the 25 percent can be allocated to either or both of the categories named, “in any proportion that the state feels appropriate,” says Anne Voigt, spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which administers the program for DHS.

Most state officials who spoke to Security Management regarding this issue indicated that their agencies have generally complied with this directive by proposing to devote 25 percent or more of their grant funding to a mix of counter-IED expenditures (mostly training and equipment) and all-hazards emergency management planning.

Not all states objected to funding counter-IED efforts. States with large urban areas, which are perceived to face a higher threat of terrorist attack, consider it a valid concern, as do the few locations with direct past experience.

Kerry Pettingill, director of the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security and a former bomb technician who responded to the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing, noted that the funding would help smaller squads around the country maintain accreditation through the National Bomb Squad Commanders Advisory Board (NBSCAD). As of next year, for example, NBSCAD will require that all squads maintain a remote-control bomb disposal robot. Quality robots cost $150,000 and up, Pettingill says.

Oklahoma, which already has robust ordnance disposal programs, has proposed spending DHS grants on improving standard operating procedures and on an “If you see something, say something,” public education campaign.

Georgia—the site of three bombings committed by American terrorist Eric Rudolph, including the 1996 Olympic Park Bombing that killed one and injured 111 more—prioritized IED initiatives in its funding proposal, says Ralph Reichert, director of terrorism emergency response and preparedness with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s Office of Homeland Security.

Georgia has proposed using the funds to purchase bomb-disposal equipment, develop improved standard operating procedures, and purchase and train up to 16 bomb-sniffing dogs, two for each of the state’s eight administrative regions.

At the other end of the population spectrum, Montana plans to use the funds to expand bomb-squad capacity through added equipment and training. It intends to devote the money to developing the capacity to respond to two separate incidents simultaneously, says state homeland security coordinator Sheri Lanz.

By contrast, Minnesota, site of last year’s I-35W bridge collapse, proposes that its share of this pool of grant funding be directed to new equipment for the state’s collapsed-structure team, says Marita Nelson of the state’s Office of Emergency Management.

Connecticut has proposed funding radiological detection equipment and training personnel who participate in regional Viper-team activity, says Wayne Sandford, deputy commissioner of the state’s Department of Homeland Security. Viper teams are the Transportation Security Administration’s Visible Intermodal Protection and Response teams, which Connecticut works with when a team visits  the state’s transportation hubs.

Another criticism regarding these grants is that they are intended to fill gaps at the local level—state administrators may spend one fifth of SHSP funding, while 80 percent must be allocated by states to county and local jurisdictions. Top-down dictates aren’t likely to address the most pressing local-responder needs, say officials like Ryan Sugden, spokesman for Wisconsin’s Office of Justice Assistance, the state’s grant administrator.

The National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) has not taken a formal position on the IED guidance, but its president, Ken Murphy, who is also director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, voiced state officials’ frustration both with confusion over DHS’s wishes and with such explicit spending prescriptions.

“They’ve got to be very clear what they are trying to accomplish. And we get concerned when they start dictating how much can be spent, even a percentage. Every state has a strategy that it wants to work on,” Murphy says.

He sees the benefit of added counter-IED funding, but worries DHS will spread funding among too many niches. “I always wonder, ‘What will be the next flavor of the day?’” he adds.

Most states have also proposed, as requested, to spend a portion of their as-yet undetermined share of the 2008 SHSP’s $863 million on all-hazards planning, an integral and, therefore, noncontroversial element of emergency management.

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