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What Price First Response?

County, Alexandria gets beefed-up funding for security.

With the "War On Terrorism" about to enter its third year and attacks escalating in many areas of the world, are the first responders in our area getting the funds they need to adequately answer a call to action?

On July 21, U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-8) announced grants totalling $2.8 million from The Department of Homeland Security to be used by first responders in the Eighth District for emergency preparedness. It was part of $33.7 million in grants allocated by that department throughout Virginia.

"Whenever we get any kind of funding, the county looks at the total picture. We view it in the context of our comprehensive multi-disciplinary needs," said Daryl Louder, deputy chief, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.

Alexandria Fire Chief Gary Mesaris agreed. "Since 9/11, we are thinking more proactive rather than preparing to be reactive. Northern Virginia is a national model for interjurisdictional cooperation," he said.

Of the funds allocated to Moran's district, the largest amount went to Fairfax County which received $2,057,481. Others and their allocations were: Arlington County, $442,150; Alexandria, $315,519 and Falls Church, $71,436.

Some specific purposes for the money include improving communications systems among first responders, acquiring new and better equipment, and holding scenario-driven training exercises, according to Moran. "Local emergency personnel are faced with ever increasing demands because of increased threats to our homeland," Moran said.

IN ADDITION TO acquiring new or upgraded equipment, there is also the need to improve communications capabilities, administrative activities, training, and other elements that go toward a first response to any emergency situation, Louder explained.

"When you analyze the situation from the possibility of multiple incidents occurring simultaneously, you have to have a variety of equipment available. Like the military, we have to be prepared to fight on several fronts at once," Louder emphasized.

An example of this type demand, according to Mesaris, is the necessity for multiple mobile command post vehicles. "This was evident at the time of the Pentagon attack," he noted. "The region needs more than one because of the possibility of multiple incidents."

Louder said, "The broader the application and purpose of whatever you purchase, the more cost effective it is." As an example of shared equipment, Louder cited the use of the Fairfax County Police command vehicle "as the primary command headquarters for 10 days at the Pentagon."

Mesaris also emphasized, "A good deal of work needs to be done in improving communications operability and data sharing. You will see more training events that concentrate on WMD [weapons of mass destruction] situations. These will be more regionally-based."

IN THE CASE of the fire departments, most of the federal grant money is geared to equipment, according to Louder. This leaves expenses for training and other personnel/administrative demands with the local jurisdiction.

"Even though these monies allow for some training, we still have to fill the personnel slots while others are on training. Very few fire department grants go for personnel and administrative matters," Louder explained.

In order to balance and prioritize these various needs, Fairfax County has established an Emergency Management Coordination Committee. It is headed by Douglas Bass, emergency management coordinator for Fairfax County.

"In addition to overall emergency coordination, this assures that all our agencies have a chance to have their needs assessed. Once a month they present those needs. The committee then prioritizes them and makes its recommendations to the county on how to allocate any grant funds," Bass explained.

"Some of the things we agreed to fund included, breathing equipment for the fire department, upgraded protective gear for the police department so that each officer will have his own gear, and funds for the sheriff's department to improve security at the courthouse," he said.

"These items were approved at the county level but they still have to go through the procurement process. And, we still have a lot of unmet needs. The federal government has told us the money was coming down the pipeline for months. Now, it's starting to actually come in," Bass assured.

ONE OF THE positions under the Committee is a grants specialist/coordinator. That position is tasked with surveying needs and developing lists for potential grant applications, according to Bass.

"We are always trying to bring more money into the county to develop better capabilities to protect and serve our citizens," Bass said. "We now have nearly $3 million for equipment purchases, plus $200,000 for training exercises. There is also additional money coming to our Urban Search and Rescue Team."

Alexandria has also received $8 million from a Byrne Grant, Mesaris acknowledged. It has been used to acquire a Haz-Mat response vehicle, a Technical Rescue vehicle, replace an aerial ladder truck, and add new gear and equipment to the department which is specifically designed to meet terrorist type incidents, he pointed out.

These grants, which come through the U.S.Department of Justice, provide monies for local governments to use in fire protection and law enforcement, according to Bernard Caton, legislative director, City of Alexandria. "That $8 million was part of the first round of funding that came to this area," he said.

"The application for the grant was submitted in May 2002, and was awarded within 60 days," Caton said. "It is for equipment and training for police, fire, and sheriff's departments. The amounts appear to differ based on size of municipality and proximity to Washington."

Mesaris noted, "In addition, there have been other funds that pass through the state government to the local jurisdictions. Alexandria is applying for an estimated additional $600,000 to upgrade its breathing apparatus as well as other equipment for both the fire and police departments."

Upgrading first responder breathing equipment to meet the potential multiple threats of chemical, biological, and radiological incidents would cost Fairfax County more than $1 million alone, according to Louder. "We are thankful for the money we are getting. But, you have to put it into perspective."

Louder clarified, "What you see is not necessarily what you get. The Commonwealth can take up to 25 percent of the money just to administer the grant.

"We have been very fortunate in that we have received tremendous support from the county. We have increased and enhanced our capabilities significantly since 9/11."

Dan Schmidt, public information officer, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, added, "The county is coming to the plate and helping tremendously on the people part as well. You have to have people, equipment, and training.

"When you look across the board, there are so many levels of both equipment and training needed. We increased our Haz Mat teams by 21 positions in the last year. And, these are full-time, rather than part-time positions."

"If we have a terrorist event, the regular day-to-day needs and events don't go away. The grants really address the exceptional events," Louder said.

And even those are not confined to terrorist incidents. Mesaris cited the recent power outage as a good example. "Our people have to have specialized training in all sorts of situations. For instance, we have special training in how to evacuate people from Metro rail if necessary," he said.

"There's a lot of high dollar needs out there because we need to be prepared for abnormal, very demanding incidents. We will always have needs and they will always exceed what's available, especially when you talk about mass casualty incidents, decontamination, and other requirements in such an emergency. It takes on a very broad scope," Louder said.