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Denver Post July 04, 2005

U.S. grants boost emergency crews

Some want funds to focus on borders, inspections, intelligence

By Bruce Finley

Federal grants to fight terrorism are again giving local first-responders equipment they otherwise couldn't afford due to state budget woes.

But as Colorado officials begin spending their $36 million out of $2.5 billion allotted nationwide, experts say real safety gains against terrorist attacks depend on better border security and intelligence - not on filling every town storage room with respirators and night-vision gear.

And rural leaders grasp the limits of homeland security. "I don't think we're ever going to be immune if somebody is willing to put themselves in a car and run into something and kill themselves. What kind of defense can you have against that?" said Jo Ann Stone, Colorado's western regional security coordinator, in Gunnison. "We don't want to ask for money and waste it."

In the spirit of an open-records law that took effect Friday, security coordinators around Colorado revealed the following items that they are buying:

Five bus-size mobile command centers and more than 100 respirators for Denver-area police.

Equipment for responding to an attack involving weapons of mass destruction in Colorado Springs, including laptop computers that give first-responders complex data.

Night-vision goggles and bulletproof vests for police in the western mountains.

Radios that let first-responders talk across jurisdictions and disciplines.

A second mobile decontamination trailer on the southeastern prairie for victims of chemical, biological or radiological attacks.

A tactical vehicle and planning sessions in northeastern Colorado for defense of the nation's food chain, including responding to animal disease.

Training for "citizen corps" volunteers mobilizing to watch out for suspicious people, give mass inoculations and evacuate the elderly.

Colorado has received $136.8 million in federal Homeland Security grants since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

A 2003 state law barred officials from specifying how they spend this money on the grounds it would reveal local weaknesses to terrorists. Some local coordinators still were reluctant to say what they wanted but didn't get.

Meanwhile, national security experts and Government Accountability Office investigators warn of lagging national efforts to improve border security, guard against passport fraud, inspect air and sea cargo, gather intelligence and use intelligence via early warning systems.

Some contend that in this context, Homeland Security grants to local first-responders create illusions of security that doesn't exist.

New security money "is not making you safer against terrorism. Most locales probably aren't threatened by terrorists to begin with," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a research organization in Washington.

An overriding problem is that "the country is just too easy to get into," and night-vision goggles in western Colorado won't change that, Pike said. "But they might help authorities deal with criminals."

Buying equipment for locals "is a horrible idea. You can't be strong everywhere," said James Carafano, security analyst for the Heritage Foundation.

"The problem with buying stuff is, you gotta maintain it," said Carafano, who advocates shifting funds toward "sustainable public safety programs."

Across Colorado, a major focus has been developing radio systems that let first-responders communicate effectively.

Colorado officials several years ago began building an 800-megahertz system, spending about $100 million in state money. But they couldn't afford to complete the project. Now the federal grants enable delivery of radios to police in rural areas.

"In all honesty, I'm not sure al-Qaeda knows where the San Luis Valley is," said Jeff Babcock, the regional security coordinator there. Yet for years, in emergency response drills, the inability to communicate across jurisdictions and disciplines thwarted police and fire crews.

This year's Homeland Security money for radios "is a godsend," Babcock said. "It's going to improve security down the line. Without this equipment, we'd still be doing things the way we were in the '90s. Now we're going to be able to improve."

The federal grants have been "a tremendous opportunity for us," said Mike Beasley, executive director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, the top state official for security. "These grants have made it possible to do what our state budget hasn't: enhance the safety of our citizens."


Copyright 2005, The Denver Post