By JOEL BERG, a freelance writer based in York, Pa.
When it comes to ranking potential terrorist targets in the United States, bigger cities leap to mind than Riverside, Calif.
The risk there is high enough, however, that the Southern California city and the surrounding area are receiving more than $3 million from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security this year.
The funding might lead one to assume Riverside faces an increased terrorism attack risk--or that Homeland Security knows something local officials don't, says Anthony Coletta, emergency services manager for the city of nearly 300,000 people.
"I can assure you, that's not the case," Coletta says.
The risk in Riverside is similar to any other good-sized American city: the population is growing, a heavy volume of people and goods move through it, and plenty of airports, power plants and other critical facilities call it home.
The Department of Homeland Security funnels millions of dollars into the largest metro areas through the Urban Areas Security Initiative, or UASI. But the program also provides grants to smaller cities such as Riverside. This year, the program provided nearly $800 million overall for planning, equipment and training designed to prevent and respond to terrorist acts.
Changes to the program this year opened the spigot to more small urban areas that did not get funding in the past. Previously, the department assessed risk and awarded grants based on a 10-mile buffer zone around city centers. For 2008, the department considered the country's 100 largest population centers, which often spill over city and county lines.
The switch allowed more than a dozen urban areas to join the list of smaller cities, known as Tier 2 cities, this year, bringing the total to 53. New grantees also include Nashville, Tenn., Syracuse, N.Y.; and Toledo, Ohio.
Inclusion on the list doesn't mean a city is any less safe, and smaller regions may not offer the same high-profile targets as larger peers like Los Angeles; New York City; and Washington, D.C., local officials say. Still, the concentration of people and the presence of airports, highways and nuclear power plants are reasons to prepare.
"The population centers seem to be the targets lately," says Wayne Sandford, deputy commissioner for the Connecticut Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.
Two regions in the state received UASI funding this year, Bridgeport and Hartford. State officials hope to add New Haven in the future, Sandford says. New Haven had been funded in 2004 under an earlier formula.
But the expanding Tier 2 list comes at a cost. Expansion of the list could dilute available funding, says Jay Alan, a spokesman for the Governor's Office of Homeland Security in California.
Nonetheless, he says, "We're glad to have another city (Riverside) on that list." Other Tier 2 cities in California are Anaheim/Santa Ana, Sacramento and San Diego.
Local officials note that the federal program is aiming to provide a more consistent stream of funding than it has in the past.
"If you give funding one or two years ... it doesn't allow an area to get their work done to prevent or respond to events of national significance," says James W. Tuffey, chief of the Albany, N.Y., police department.
Federal funding is never a guarantee, says a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the program.
"We do know that (the Department of Homeland Security) has enjoyed robust funding on a historical basis, however, so grantees may be keeping that in mind," the spokesperson says.
An increase in grantees could reduce funding available per region, the spokesperson added. However, Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities draw from separate pots.
Regional wish lists are dictated in part by the requirements of the UASI grant program. They include surveillance cameras, license-plate readers, and additional equipment for responding to explosives and mass casualties.
But many areas have focused on the backbone of an effective response to any disaster, whether natural or manmade: communications, specifically the ability of different fire and police departments to talk to each other. The need for so-called "interoperable communications" was highlighted in reports that examined New York's response to the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attack.
"You can have all the people and all the equipment to respond, but if you can't coordinate that through communications, it is not as effective," says Chad Carlton, spokesman for Mayor Jerry Abramson of Louisville, Ky. That city received about $1.4 million in UASI funding this year.
Some of the money is going toward the purchase of in-vehicle and hand-held radios for police officers, fire fighters and other emergency responders in the city and surrounding Jefferson County, Carlton says.
Officials also plan to install an emergency operations headquarters in a former Federal Reserve building in downtown Louisville.
Officials never argued Louisville was a likely al-Qaida target, though the city hosts one high-profile event, the Kentucky Derby, Carlton adds.
"On the other hand, there's no reason to imagine that we are immune from that," he says. "But whether a bridge comes down because of neglect, terrorist act or a tornado, it's still a problem that you have to resolve and you have to deal with."
And such disasters, whether natural or manmade, don't respect political boundaries. The impact could touch communities that might have believed themselves safe.
In Connecticut, officials recently staged two mock terrorist attacks. One was an explosive device planted on a commuter train. The other was a hostage-taking at the University of Bridgeport.
The exercises demonstrated the need for regions to respond together, says Denis McCarthy, fire chief and emergency management director for Norwalk, Conn. McCarthy also chairs the regional emergency planning team for the Bridgeport area, a UASI grantee receiving nearly $2 million.
Real events have hammered home the same point. In March 2004, several small towns and villages in Connecticut felt the aftereffects of a fire that temporarily closed a bridge on Interstate 95, McCarthy says. Tens of thousands of drivers had to find their way on local roads.
The Bridgeport grant covers 14 municipalities. So, like Louisville, the region is focusing its efforts on a network that will allow first responders from any area to communicate with each other. Officials plan eventually to wire in buses, garbage trucks and other public-works vehicles, McCarthy says. Such vehicles could be called on to support emergency operations.
"Right now they are on very patchwork communications systems," McCarthy says. "Some are operating off of Nextel phones. Some are operating on dedicated radio frequencies that are incompatible."
Regional cooperation in Bridgeport and other areas around the country tests the ability of urban and rural officials to settle on shared priorities.
That was the challenge in Albany, N.Y. The state capital had received UASI funding in the past. But this year, roughly $1.8 million was spread over a broader area that included neighboring cities and counties.
Urban areas were keener on buying surveillance cameras to watch over potential targets, such as bridges, government buildings and chemical plants, says Anthony Bruno, an assistant chief in Albany's police department. Rural areas had their eye on equipment that could help them respond to chemical, biological or explosive attacks.
"The outlying areas rely on volunteers, and they just don't have that equipment as readily available," Bruno says.
In Richmond, Va., officials have had to coordinate wish lists among four cities and 16 counties.
"I think this is the first time that we've come together regionally with this many localities," says Anthony McLean, interim coordinator of the Office of Emergency Management for the city of Richmond.
Overall, the benefits of regional cooperation outweigh whatever shock comes at being designated a higher-risk region, officials say.
"People are pretty realistic in New York state that times have changed and therefore preparation is a part of everyday life," says Tim Carroll, operations director for Syracuse, N.Y. "What we welcomed was the opportunity to get some funding for some much-needed equipment and ...to think more regionally."
December 1, 2008
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