State-Level Insecurity: Retooling homeland security puts Illinois' anti-terrorism funding at risk
The value of Illinois' emergency preparedness efforts was apparent just hours after Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana. One of the first medical teams to arrive in Baton Rouge, where thousands had fled, was from Illinois. And this state's squad was specially trained to respond to the disaster it confronted in August and September.
Yet, while Illinois can point to progress in homeland security, the future of its preparedness program is less certain. The federal pool that helps fund such initiatives is shrinking, and could dry further under the budget proposed by President George W. Bush in February.
U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, says Bush's plan will leave first responders in the lurch and likely give Illinois as a whole less money to spend on homeland security. "If we end up with level funding, it would be a dream."
Despite this threat, state officials continue to be optimistic funding will be available to launch future efforts as large in scale as the response to Katrina.
In the wake of the hurricane, 11 members of a special Illinois medical response team arrived at Louisiana State University, where the stadium that normally housed the men's basketball team had become a collection point for people needing attention.
Led by two doctors, the team included five nurses, three paramedics and an administrator. They took a field medical center from Carle Clinic and Foundation Hospital in Urbana, which was paid for with a grant from the Illinois Terrorism Task Force.
Trained to handle major health crises, the team worked with similar groups from New Mexico and the federal government to set up a field hospital on the basketball court where the LSU Tigers play home games.
The combined medical teams, which had to treat patients without the benefit of medical records, set up processes for admitting patients, keeping track of them and determining who needed care most urgently. They also created an on-site pharmacy. Within four days, the operation grew to an 800-bed field hospital, the largest in the state.
The Illinois team called home for more help. Eventually, some 52 Illinois nurses, doctors and other specialists joined a burgeoning force of health professionals that swelled to 1,700 volunteers. The effort amounted to the largest mobilization of health professionals in U.S. history, according to LSU.
The rapid-response medical teams are an example of Illinois' efforts to create a network of trained professionals who are stationed strategically to react to a wide variety of possible crises anywhere in the state. Many of those efforts started before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. But in the wake of those tragedies, the state has used federal grants and state funds to build its homeland security infrastructure.
Illinois has trained police to use special weapons and tactics, firefighters to handle hazardous materials, and all types of emergency personnel to conduct search-and-rescue efforts or respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction. It has set up statewide mutual aid agreements for police, firefighters and paramedics so that departments in crisis only need to turn to one statewide agency for reinforcements. It has created command centers to coordinate intelligence about terrorists or other criminals among a wide variety of government agencies.
Illinois also is creating standard, secure credentials for use by agencies across the state to control who can get to disaster scenes when a group of agencies are responding together. And it has rolled out the first wave of radio equipment that will allow myriad disaster response agencies to communicate with each other.
The state's efforts — coordinated by the Illinois Terrorism Task Force — have earned widespread praise, from Harvard University to local officials who have seen firsthand how the system responds in times of disaster.
Still, Illinois' emergency response initiatives depend to a large degree on federal funding that could become scarcer. And Congress and the Bush Administration are tinkering with the rules for doling out homeland security grants in an effort to get the most bang for their buck at a time of mounting deficits.
The federal government offers a wide variety of these grants. Some are targeted to such cities as Chicago with large populations and high risk of terrorist attacks. Some are for limited purposes, such as port security. Others go straight to the states to achieve wider goals.
In the past year, Congress and President Bush have pushed to make more of those grants dependent on the likelihood that a state, or one of its cities, would be targeted for a terrorist attack. Previously, some of the largest grant programs distributed money based mainly on population.
The new approach follows one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, the bipartisan panel that suggested ways to improve the country's approach to preventing terrorism.
"The allocation of funds should be based on an assessment of threats and vulnerabilities. That assessment should consider such factors as population, population density, vulnerability and the presence of critical infrastructure within each state," the Commission wrote. "In addition, the federal government should require each state receiving federal emergency preparedness funds to provide an analysis based on the same criteria to justify the distribution of funds in that state."
Last fall, Congress retooled the way the federal homeland security money is doled out for state-by-state grants to place more emphasis on risk. And earlier this year, the Bush Administration announced it would take the same approach for grants given out to such major urban areas as Chicago and Cook County.
In concept, Illinois officials widely agree with the risk-based approach. After all, several factors suggest that Illinois would be near the top of the list for grants that are doled out that way starting this summer.
Chicago is not only the third-largest city in the United States, it's also one of the country's most important transportation hubs. Some of the most vital cross-country railroad and interstate routes go through the Chicago area. And the city has important symbolic landmarks, particularly the Sears Tower, that could be targeted by terrorists.
Furthermore, Illinois has more nuclear power plants than any other state, and securing those is a high priority in anti-terrorism efforts.
Still, there are concerns about what the new system for allocating funds will mean to Illinois. In May of 2005, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security cited cities that would be eligible to apply for port security grants. The agency determined who could apply based on the risk to the ports. The 66-city list included Milwaukee — but not Chicago.
By any measure, argues Mike Chamness, the chairman of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force, Chicago should have been on that list.
"It's like getting ranked in the top 10 in the [college] basketball polls and not getting asked to the [NCAA] tournament."
Even more frustrating, he says, is that Illinois and Chicago officials don't know what criteria were used in assessing the risk to ports, so they don't know how to address those concerns when applying for next year's round of port security grants.
A spokeswoman for the city of Chicago declined to comment on how a move to risk-based grants would affect the city, noting that Chicago had already submitted this year's application for funding under the Urban Areas Security Initiative. The city has asked for some $170 million.
Durbin cites other slights, as well. He notes that Chicago didn't qualify for a federally funded urban area search-and-rescue team. Instead, Illinois decided to train and equip such a team on its own. And Durbin argues the federal government needs to do more to encourage state and local governments to develop regional evacuation plans.
Meanwhile, Illinois requested $77.5 million under the state-by-state grants, up from $74 million last year. Chamness says he's optimistic this state will receive the modest increase. "Our application is a strong application, but it's also a reasonable one."
It would include $35.8 million for intelligence collection and sharing, $24.9 million to train and equip specialized response teams, $10 million for a secure credentialing initiative, $4.8 million to build a uniform communications system and $1.8 million for public outreach. But even if the state gets its full request this year in the state-by-state grants, there's no guarantee that it will continue to receive more money from all of the federal programs that are available.
In fact, the pool of money the federal government gives out for homeland security grants has been dwindling and would continue to do so under Bush's proposed budget. The president wants to eliminate entirely a program earmarked for law enforcement that directed $12.8 million to Illinois last year, even while adding to other areas some of the money that was saved. All told, though, Bush's plan would cut grants to cities and states by $400 million, down to about $2.57 billion.
Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate, bemoans the proposed cuts as one of several poor decisions by the Bush Administration when it comes to homeland security. "We're a long way from where we should be."
But a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security says the drop in spending should be looked at in context. "Since September 11, the department has provided an unprecedented amount of funding [more than $11 billion] to our nation's first responders," says Homeland Security spokesman Steven Llanes. But those costs, he says, were especially high in the wake of the terrorist attacks because states had to build their response capabilities rapidly.
While Llanes would not say whether Chicago would qualify for the port security grant in the future, he says the city's exclusion was "based on one year, one round of funding." And while the city may not have received that particular grant, he says, it could still use money from several other federal sources to improve its port security. In any event, the department will continue to update its criteria for those grants.
Ken Alderson, the executive director of the Illinois Municipal League, says it's hard to tell what a change in federal funding would mean to individual cities. Like highway construction, he says, homeland security initiatives are paid for with so many sources of state, local and federal money that it's hard to predict the impact of a change in one of them.
Still, Alderson says Illinois' approach to homeland security has benefited cities and towns. Between 80 percent and 85 percent of the money Illinois spends on anti-terrorism efforts is directed toward local units of government, he says, so even cities that never see a check from the state most likely have equipment the state bought or personnel who received special training through state programs.
And the extensive use of mutual aid should put the public at ease, too, he adds, citing several instances when the approach has paid off.
Besides the medical teams, Illinois dispatched hundreds of firefighters and police officers to assist in the Katrina relief efforts. Those call-outs were made smoother because of recent efforts to establish statewide mutual aid systems.
In fact, when the state put the finishing details on its Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System in 2004, it became the first state in the nation to have a statewide mutual aid system for police.
When Chicago firefighters poured downtown to fight a fire at the LaSalle Bank's Loop headquarters, firefighters from 20 other jurisdictions ran firehouses in the city as back-up, thanks to the Mutual Aid Box Alarm Systems for firefighters and paramedics, points out Chamness, who chairs the terrorism task force.
Following a tornado in Utica in 2004, 450 firefighters arrived on the scene to help with the search-and-rescue mission. Those included many specially trained for such situations — six technical rescue teams, seven heavy rescue squads and one hazardous materials team, according to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. Those responders helped save nine people trapped in the Milestone Tap building where eight other people died during the storm.
And state-trained hazardous materials teams were on hand to deal with the derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials in the southern Illinois town of Tamaroa in February 2003.
The municipal league's Alderson says those examples show Illinois' first responders can deal with natural disasters, accidental disasters and even terrorist attacks.
"Citizens should find it reassuring that we're going to have response capability, no matter what the disaster is."
Daniel C. Vock, a frequent contributor to Illinois Issues, is a reporter for Washington, D.C.-based Stateline.org and a former Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
Illinois Issues, May 2006