Doling out the federal dough to protect Vermonters
Colchester Police Officer Mike Cannon thinks it's unlikely he'll ever have to respond to a terrorist attack. "I don't think Osama bin Laden is sitting under a tree somewhere thinking about how to get at Colchester, Vermont," he says. But that hasn't stopped the 45-year-old veteran cop and Technical Rescue Squad Leader from applying for, and winning, federal anti-terrorism funding for his 17-member rescue unit. Since March 2003, the Vermont Department of Homeland Security has awarded them three grants, totaling nearly $240,000.
Colchester's good fortune has infuriated residents of some larger states, who contend that this money would be better spent fortifying more likely terrorist targets. In May 2003, an Associated Press story appeared in newspapers across the country questioning Colchester's right to the windfall. Since then, the town has become a national poster child for what critics contend is the mismanagement of homeland-security money.
And it's not just Colchester that's under attack. If Representative Chris Cox (R-CA) has his way, every town in Vermont will see its homeland-security dollars cut. Cox is working to pass legislation that will erase the formula that provides the Green Mountain State with its anti-terrorism grants. That's bad news for Vermont's first-responders, who have been using the funds to buy basic equipment they've always wanted but have never been able to afford. Taking away our homeland-security money might make big cities a little safer, but it will definitely leave small Vermont towns with a lot to be desired.
Thanks to Sen. Patrick Leahy, the state currently gets at least .75 percent of the total Homeland Security budget. Leahy wrote a small-state minimum allowance into the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001. So far, that allowance has brought Vermont nearly $37 million of the $8 billion the Department of Homeland Security has distributed since the end of FY 2002. That's $31.24 per Vermonter, contends a press release by New York City Representa-tive Anthony Weiner, while New York's much, much higher allocation comes to only $5.38 per New Yorker. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg calls Leahy's formula "pork barrel politics at its worst."
But Mike Cannon and other Vermont first-responders insist that the state deserves a slice of the homeland-security pie. After all, they say, Vermont is a likely conduit for terrorists headed south, or disaster victims headed north. More importantly, the state's largely volunteer emergency services desperately need the money. Talk to them and the phrase "begged, borrowed and stole" comes up a lot. "Vermont truly has been behind the times in having some of the basic equipment," says Cannon.
Robert DeMange, a grant administrator for the Vermont Department of Homeland Security, agrees. He says Vermont needs help to make up the "tremendous deficit" in our emergency response infrastructure. "It's only because of this huge influx of federal money -- and it's all federal money -- that now departments are getting up to a baseline they should have been up to regardless of any terrorist threat," he says.
The federal money allocated to Vermont reaches local communities through the Vermont Department of Homeland Security. The VTDHS announces grant cycles, then invites proposals from law-enforcement, fire and rescue services around the state. The federal Department of Homeland Security provides a list of what they'll fund, separating the grants into categories such as "explosive mitigation," "terrorist preparation" and "CBRNE vehicles." Each grant cycle has a different focus. In the most recent round, announced on May 27, the state designated nearly $14 million to buy equipment. A previous round allocated $2 million for various types of training.
DeMange is one of the administrators who doles out the dough to Vermont agencies. He advises applicants about what he's likely to fund, but relies on them to let him know what they need. He says the state only funds equipment that applicants will actually use.
So while the state dutifully plunked down a couple hundred thousand dollars to buy decontamination and mass-casualty trailers for Burlington, they're not springing for the same equipment in Lincoln. It just wouldn't be practical. "Much of what we're doing under the guise of homeland security enhances our emergency-response capabilities," says DeMange. "We're purposely pushing our departments to get double-use stuff. There is almost nothing that is purchased that will sit on the shelf waiting for the terrorists to unleash a big event."
At first glance, some of the money that has gone to Colchester's Technical Rescue Squad seems to be an exception -- which is probably why the national news media glommed onto the story. Cannon's team is a volunteer unit that specializes in water rescue, climbing or "rope" rescue, and extracting victims from confined spaces. They applied during the first grant cycle and won $58,000. They spent it on what they thought they needed -- high-tech rescue equipment that's in short supply in Vermont.
In the May 31 issue of the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert derides the town in an attempt to show how New York is being short-changed. Kolbert writes that they bought "a fifty-eight-thousand-dollar search-and-rescue vehicle capable of boring through concrete, to be used in case of building collapse." The tallest building in Colchester, she then reveals dryly, has only four stories.
But, Cannon points out, that's just plain wrong. "There's no $58,000 vehicle," he says. "That pissed me off when I read it." The money actually bought a variety of items, including wooden beams and a pneumatic stabilizer, useful for shoring up collapsed buildings, trenches or wrecked cars; a high-tech camera with a 300-foot tether that can search spots too dangerous to drop a diver or a climber; and the drill, which comes in a hard, black plastic case and, when assembled, is about the size of a weed-whacker. The grant also paid for a trailer, which the crew uses to tote their new equipment to the scene.
This might sound like an impressive list, and for a small town volunteer rescue unit, it is. But though Colchester is home to only 17,200 people, it's actually the state's second-largest municipality. And it's not as if all these goodies will just benefit Colchester. The crew -- one of only three swift-water rescue teams in the state -- responds to emergencies all over Vermont. The 30 to 35 calls they receive each year take them as far as Huntington Gorge, Island Pond and Rutland. Before September 11, they were one of the state's most highly trained rescue teams. Now they're also one of the best equipped.
DeMange defends the squad, calling them "aggressive, top-notch people." He suggests that the unfavorable press is unfair. "Supposedly we're stealing money away from New York," he says. "Of course, they're getting billions. They don't want little old Colchester to get any money at all." DeMange says that when he considered what his department could give and what the Colchester crew had to offer, "It was a perfect match."
Most of Vermont's other grant recipients are easier to defend. In the second grant cycle of 2003, just under $3 million -- the biggest piece of the state pie -- went to upgrading communications. Barre City, which received $219,702 in May, is spending $161,302 on dispatch-system upgrades. Police Chief Trevor Whipple says upkeep of Barre's dispatch is key -- it handles emergency calls for 14 different agencies. "We're at a pivotal point where our equipment is rapidly aging," says Whipple. In the absence of anti-terrorism funds, he adds, he probably wouldn't have been able to replace the equipment, at least not all at once. "We might continue to use a little duct tape and string," he says. "Instead of getting 10 new radios, we might have gotten one, which gives you a much less effective network."
Some Vermont towns only need one radio. Scanning the grant award spreadsheets, it's easy to spot them -- the grants tend to run less than two grand and are often awarded to the Town Constable. This May, constables in Poultney, Strafford, Granville and Walden won grants to install radios in their personal vehicles, which they use to patrol back roads in some of the state's more remote corners.
Walden Constable Bill Huntoon was excited to learn he'd received a $1500 Homeland Security grant. It will allow him to fit his Pontiac Grand Am with a dual UHF/VHF police radio. For two years, the Northeast Kingdom lawman has been using his cell phone to contact an emergency dispatch, but reception in hilly Walden -- population 782 -- is spotty at best.
"Without a radio, you can't communicate," says the 36-year-old constable, who drives around responding to minor disturbances such as noise complaints and break-ins. "I can't call anything in from my vehicle if my cell phone won't work."
That has posed problems for Huntoon in the past. He says suspects have escaped because he couldn't radio for help. Once he was called to a break-in but wasn't allowed to enter the crime scene without backup, though someone might have been hurt inside. He had to wait 40 minutes while the dispatcher tried to direct state police, who got lost en route. Not having a radio could have had dire consequences if he'd spotted terrorists coming from Canada, he warns. "If a terrorist crosses over from Newport, he's gonna come right through my town."
Vermont's overall scarcity of equipment troubles Huntoon, who is also a rescue volunteer. "We can't do our jobs if they don't supply us," he says. "It would shock you to see -- these guys put their lives on the line and they don't have the equipment to do it."
For one, Huntoon cites the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus, or SCBA. This is the air tank a fire fighter wears to protect against smoke inhalation. One SCBA can cost up to $5000. They're standard-issue for professional fire fighters, but small Vermont towns can hardly afford to keep each volunteer equipped with one -- unless they get money from Homeland Security.
That's what Granville Fire Chief Douglas Fuller has done. Granville -- population 303 -- is so small it has one of the last one-room schoolhouses in the state, but Fuller has managed to win two anti-terrorism grants totaling $54,000. He swears he's not abusing the system. "This equipment is absolutely needed," he says. "This is not a Christmas list for me. There's not a fancy Cadillac sitting out there."
Fuller says some of the money went to the town constable to purchase a radio and some hazard signs to mark twisty-turny Route 100 after an accident. "We get some bad ones," he says. The town also bought SCBAs and protective clothing for the volunteer fire department. And Fuller spent $18,000 on a backup generator, to be housed at the town hall. "Until now," he says, "we had no area where the townspeople could go in case of emergency."
But while Fuller and his tiny town have benefited from this system, he freely identifies some flaws. He thinks the government should take a more active role in determining need, partly because he thinks some towns are abusing the system, but partly because applying for these grants is a lot of work. "It's a lot to ask, especially of a volunteer organization," he says.
And he'd like the state to offer more training, rather than just handing out a list of what's available. "I don't even know what some of that stuff is," the chief confesses.
Battalion Chief Kevin Williams of the Burlington Fire Depart-ment is less cautious in his assessment of the program. The BFD has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in new equipment and training through the Vermont Homeland Security Department, and Williams is reveling in Vermont's largesse.
"This is such a wonderful thing to have funding available," he says. "Most services around the state hold bake sales and coin drops to buy equipment."
As he offers these observations, he mentions that he's out of town for a trade show. Perhaps he's scanning the booths for the latest new, new thing that for so long has seemed out of reach. "For once in my career, there is a set of resources that we can access," he says jubilantly. "It's a great time to be involved in this business." If you're a Vermonter, anyway. At least for now.