EPD, sheriff's department still await homeland security funds

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist in April signed into law a bill making $1.8 million available to strengthen the state's homeland security efforts.
   "The most important function of state government is to protect the lives of its citizens," according to Sundquist, who said the tragedy of the Sept. 11 attacks at the World Trade Center and Pentagon brought to the public's attention the need to improve various areas of the state's security.
   The bill provided $312,100 to the Tennessee Office of Homeland Security for a director of weapons of mass destruction and other personnel, computers, communication tools and travel expenses.
   The bill also sat aside:
   * $430,00 for the Department of Military to purchase computers, portable barriers, body armor, chemical suits and HazMat training suits;
   * $200,000 for Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to purchase vehicles, communications and emergency equipment for the vehicles;
   * $455,200 for Tennessee Department of Safety to purchase vehicles, equipment and communication tools; and
   * $473,500 for Tennessee Emergency Management Agency to purchase walk-through and hand-held metal detectors, HazMat suits, vehicles, equipment and training for local emergency responders.
   However, the legislation stipulates that state dollars cannot be spent where federal dollars are available.
   Congress is now grappling with President Bush's call for a Department of Homeland Security, which would have a first-year budget of about $38 billion and approximately 170,000 employees. The First Responder Initiative proposes to increase federal funding levels 1,000 percent to $3.5 billion in fiscal year 2003 for police, firefighters and emergency medical teams.
   But state and federal dollars are slow to trickle down to the local level. While both Elizabethton Police Department and Carter County Sheriff's Department have been told they are in line to receive funding for communications and equipment, it has yet to materialize.
   Patricia A. Dalton, director of Strategic Issues, in testimony Aug. 20 before the U.S. House, said state and local governments are incurring unexpected costs defending or protecting their respective communities. According to Dalton, the National Governors' Association estimates that additional homeland security-related costs from Sept. 11 through the end of this year will reach approximately $6 billion.
   "Similarly, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has estimated the costs incurred by cities during this time period to be $2.6 billion," Dalton said.
   The first week of September, Tennessee was on Code Yellow alert, meaning the state was at significant risk of terrorist attacks. Are local police departments and sheriff's offices equipped to deal with a disaster on the magnitude of Sept. 11? Given current state and local budget constraints, probably not.
   Fortunately, citizens in the sprawling Elizabethton/Carter County area are somewhat isolated from the likelihood of such a catastrophic event occurring on their homefront. However, they are not immune.
   Elizabethton Police Department officers, much as officers at every other police department across the nation, have felt some impact from 9-11, according to Chief Roger Deal.
   "We are more vigilant, just like every citizen. We try to be aware more of what's going on around us and we don't take things for granted any more that we did before.
   "Officers are more cautious. A lot of times we will get complaints that an officer 'looked in my car. I'm no criminal; I didn't have a gun.'
   "The officer doesn't know these people and you can't take it for granted anymore. It's about survival," Chief Deal said.
   "We are constantly trying to upgrade our training. While our budget is pretty thin on training this year, we're doing our best to seek every opportunity to gain training when we have the money to do so," he said.
   According to the police chief, most of the funding through the Office of Homeland Security will be made available to local first-responders through Tennessee Emergency Management Agency or local Emergency Management Agency offices.
   As of the end of August, "We have not received any funds for training," Chief Deal said. "We have worked with Jim Burrough [director of the Elizabethton/Carter County EMA office] and he has filed a grant that I'm told has been approved. We're waiting on the paperwork."
   Chief Deal said the funds will be used to purchase body armor for the department's SWAT team and a digital camera system for monitoring activity around the police station. The department also plans to upgrade its communications equipment through funds awarded under a law enforcement block grant.
   "In the Milligan area we have a communication problem due to the range of our outdated radio system. So we had planned to buy repeaters," Chief Deal said. "When an officer is down there on a domestic, or out of the car working a traffic accident or any kind of call, he pretty much has no communication until he gets back to his car. That's an officer safety issue that we're addressing.
   "We were hoping to go to an 800 MHz radio system which would alleviate that problem, but funds were not available," he said.
   Chief Deputy James Parrish of Carter County Sheriff's Department said county officers also have been more vigilant since Sept. 11, and like the police department, is hoping to receive funds through Homeland Security to "upgrade our capabilities to respond. The federal government has been kind enough to offer us some funding, but we haven't gotten it yet," he said.
   The sheriff's department also could stand to lose several members of its force. Some are members of either the Army, Navy, or Marine Reserves, Parrish said, and potentially could be called to active duty. However, "nothing has happened yet," he said.
   Any state or federal grant money received by the department will be used to improve communications, and to provide "equipment and training above what we get from our standard training," according to Chief Parrish.
   In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the threat of chemical or biological warfare, weapons of mass destruction, anthrax and dirty bombs grabbed national media attention. Local citizens, whose nerves already were on edge, called local law enforcement agencies to report any suspect activity.
   "We fielded a bunch of calls there in the beginning," Chief Parrish said. However, "if you did a threat analysis, we're kind of low on the totem pole," he said. "But we're surrounded by Nuclear Fuels [in Erwin] and we're surrounded by the race track [Bristol Motor Speedway] and some other places. We've got to look at what we can do to help them out if something does happen.
   "The county around here that has the biggest threat is Sullivan County. That's because of the 160,000 people they draw in a very confined space over at the race track. If you did look at a threat, that's probably one of the higher payoff targets in the whole United States, because nowhere else do you get that many people confined in such a small space with such limited egress," he said.
   "We're more vigilant, but really, you just do what you can do."
   Elizabethton's Chief Deal agreed. "I don't look for al-Qaida to target Elizabethton; but you've got Timothy McVey-type individuals throughout the country -- hopefully, not a great deal of them -- but you can't take it for granted," he said.
   "We're constantly getting updates through NCIC [National Crime Information Center] and through our e-mail from federal government agencies that keep us updated on what's going on in our area and surrounding region. I can't go into anything that we're doing locally, but we are being more wary and checking things better than we were before 9-11 as far as looking for terrorists or terrorist activity, whether it be foreign or domestic," Deal said.
   While there is some specialized training offered in the area for local law enforcement officers, "I don't have the luxury of sending everybody that needs to go because of lack of funding," the police chief said. "There's a lot of expense associated with it. But when you don't have the money, it pretty much ties your hands.
   "We're doing the best we can with what we've got to do with," he said.