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Los Angeles: Paying for Readiness

March 4, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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FIREMAN: Roger, do you have a visual assessment of anything unusual going on down there?

JEFFREY KAYE: As make-believe victims pretended to writhe in agony, Los Angeles city firefighters tried to help them. Dressed in protective suits and gas masks, their recent drill simulated a chemical attack on civilians.

FIREMAN: We do have an indication that it could be a nerve agent involved.

JEFFREY KAYE: Each of L.A. City’s 3,200 firefighters trains once a year to respond to hazardous materials. But with increased worries about terrorism, that’s not good enough, says the commander of the Department’s Emergency Services Bureau, Chief Dean Cathey.

CHIEF DEAN CATHEY: I would think a day, a quarter, or four days a year would be a more reasonable amount of training, but this becomes very expensive not only from the standpoint of time, but because there’s a lot of other training that they are required to do.

JEFFREY KAYE: Cathey says his cash-strapped department can’t afford the training and planning it needs. Local governments in California, as in the rest of the country, face severe budget crises. LA is making hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts. The shortfall has left LA City’s fire department without funds for enough protective suits or testing equipment to handle a full-blown terrorist incident, according to chief Cathey.

CHIEF DEAN CATHEY: No one’s prepared for another event like Sept. 11. That’s something’s that’s going to overwhelm any jurisdiction, but by having the resources and logistical support to be able to get your hands on the things you need quickly is what we’re talking about.

JEFFREY KAYE: What fire fighters are talking about is echoed by law enforcement officials.

CAPT. MICHAEL GROSSMAN: Stretched thin is putting it mildly.

JEFFREY KAYE: LA Sheriff’s Capt. Michael Grossman heads the county’s emergency operations bureau. He says for personnel in the field, communications can be a challenge.

CAPT. MICHAEL GROSSMAN: It’s difficult to talk to one another as we respond to these different types of incidents, even plan an exercise. It’s difficult to talk so communications interoperability is a huge issue.

JEFFREY KAYE: Why is it so difficult to talk?

CAPT. MICHAEL GROSSMAN: Because we’re on different frequencies.

JEFFREY KAYE: Grossman says more money is needed to upgrade the radio system. That way, during an emergency, police, firefighters, and paramedics from different jurisdictions and agencies can be on the same frequency.

CAPT. MICHAEL GROSSMAN: Unless we swap radios at an incident where we go where there’s multi agencies…we’ll actually give them one of our radios and they’ll give them one of theirs and that’s how we talk to each other to coordinate.

MAN: This is the emergency operations center.

JEFFREY KAYE: Jack Weiss, an LA City councilman, says New York City’s sad experience demonstrated the importance of state-of-the-art communications.

JACK WEISS: In New York, on Sept. 11, there were N.Y.P.D. helicopter pilots who radioed in assessments that the buildings were going to fall down. New York Fire Department fire fighters didn’t hear those transmissions because they weren’t on the same frequency literally as the police department. We have the very same problem here.

JEFFREY KAYE: Since 9/11, LA has spent tens of millions of dollars improving security in and around potential targets, such as airports and at the harbor. There are new fences around government installations and reservoirs. But with serious local government budget deficits, funding homeland defense is a costly proposition. City Councilman Weiss has been lobbying the federal government to pay for more of L.A.’s security needs. How much are you looking for?

JACK WEISS: Well, at a minimum we need $100 million just to deal with the basics right now in Los Angeles, and that’s not talking about fancy gear, fancy equipment. That’s just to get our people doing their jobs, to get the right number of people doing their jobs and to get everybody up to speed.

JEFFREY KAYE: What does $100 million buy you?

JACK WEISS: $100 million will buy you better communications, better intelligence, a countywide dedicated regional local intelligence network, better training and a more secure port.

JEFFREY KAYE: Bush administration officials have said public safety costs should be a shared responsibility. The president’s budget for this year earmarks over a billion dollars for terrorism preparedness at the state and local levels. But not only have those funds been slow in coming, many officials in states and municipalities say they need much more than has been allocated. Earlier this week, Homeland Security Sec. Tom Ridge agreed that state and local emergency workers had been shortchanged. Speaking in Washington to the National Association of Counties, Ridge said that the Republican-led Congress had not appropriated as much as the president had hoped for local homeland security.

TOM RIDGE: The good news is that there is substantial new money to assist you in your efforts to improve security. Unfortunately, there is not as much exclusive terrorism-related money as we had hoped. The president had requested a 1000 percent increase in first responder dollars — with the money specifically directed toward anti-terrorism plans, equipment and training. In the end, some of these dollars were deflected to other priorities. To the extent that we can use the flexibility that Congress gave us to run those programs, to shift some of it back, specifically to counter- terrorism, we’re going to do that.

JEFFREY KAYE: Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation that would rush $7 billion to state and local governments for homeland security. But as municipalities clamor for more federal funding, there are concerns that some officials are using the terrorism fear to try to get money for projects unrelated to any threat.

CHIEF DEAN CATHEY: I think the focus on the need at least in the group I’ve been involved in has been focused on real needs, but I think there have been a couple of opportunities we can point to where someone used this to stretch the connection with terrorism as opposed to something that’s totally unrelated to it.

JEFFREY KAYE: But LA officials say they are struggling to meet some very real needs, and worry whether they will be able to respond to genuine emergencies as they do to simulated ones.