New York City's first responders continue to suffer severe shortages in funding and can expect to see their limited resources diminish even further under the Bush Administration’s proposed Budget for 2005. The safety of New Yorkers has already been compromised by, a 15 percent reduction of the police force since 2001, extremely low access to vital equipment and HAZMAT material and the closure of six firehouses, which has resulted in dramatically higher response times. Frankly, this is unacceptable.
Although the Department of Homeland Security has recently awarded over $103 million to New York State for the training and equipment of first responders, it does not come close to compensating the budget cuts already suffered, or those proposed for 2005. The budget for fiscal year 2005 cuts $2.3 billion for first responder programs. This includes both a $1 billion cut in the State Homeland Security Grant Program that assists first responders, and the removal of the Law Enforcement Block Grants, currently worth $225 million, that specifically assists police officers.
The budget cuts $800 million from state and local homeland security grants. It cuts state and local grant funding for first responder training, exercise, and technical assistance from $320 million in 2004 to $178 million in 2005. It also cuts Firefighter Investment and Response Enhancement Act grants for equipment and personnel to local fire departments by $246 million.
The bottom line: Critical needs of first responders will be under-funded by $98.4 billion over the next five years.
These radical reductions will consolidate the mounting burden placed on state and local governments. It will also prove to be a disatrous setback in aquiring the equipment and training first responders need to fulfill their increasing duties in preserving our homeland security.
In one way or another, we were all affected by the tragedy of 9/11. We saw the brave response of our police, fire, emergency medical personnel and other first responders and we still harbor a great sense of admiration and respect for them. In the time that has since passed, we have come to more fully appreciate our dependance on their service to our communities. Yet we have failed to demonstrate our support for them; we have failed to ensure they are provided with the very tools they need to keep us secure.
We know what needs to be done.
The New York City Fire Department recently made a list of requirements for the adequate preparation for response to future terrorist attacks. It included:
- A reliable communications infrastructure for first responders
- A secure dispatch network for fire and EMS personnel
- An expansion of Fire Department Operations Center as a fully functioning emergency center
- A back-up emergency location
- 12 months of emergency preparedness training for personnel.
It would cost about $277 million to acquire these and other equipment and infrastructure -- more than double the amount granted to New York State by the Department of Homeland Security.
As an effort to remedy the reduced funding and skewed allocation of funds for First Responders, I have introduced the Homeland Emergency Response Act of 2003 (HERO Act), which allocates $15 billion to protect New York City and other American cities. It creates a $3.5 billion first responder program in the first year and maintains a $3.75 billion program per year for three years thereafter. The bill protects high threat urban areas by mandating that 1/3 of all first responder funding be earmarked to the five cities with the greatest vulnerability or threat risk as determined by the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction CIA, FBI and HHS.
The bill also creates a new Anti-Terrorism Account for firefighters, while changing the Federal Firefighter Grant Program that is currently in place. The HERO Act also ensures that the allocation of funds is more equitable and based on threat ratio, thereby directing valuable funds to cities with the most need.
Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress are holding up this important piece of legislation.
I have also proposed fundamental changes to the Firefighter Investment and Response Enhancement Act Grant Program, the nation's homeland security funding program targeted specifically for fire departments. Currently, grants are limited to a sum of $75,000 and are distributed according to population. The pre-9/11 cap imposes an unnecessary restriction on access to funds for New York’s first responders.
If, as I propose, the cap were lifted and the $750 million of funds available through the FIRE Act grant program were distributed based on population, New York City would receive $20.5 million, much more than the current cap of $75,000, or even the $2 million cap proposed in President Bush's budget.
Furthermore, it is important to distribute these funds according to threat. While distributed according to population, Montana, for example, receives $9.07 per person while New York City receives only .09 cents per person.
To stand by and allow important funding for First Responders to be so drastically cut is to increase the vulnerability of our great city and undermine the huge strides we have been taking in protecting New Yorkers.
Josephy Crowley, a Democrat, represents the seventh Congressional District in the Bronx and Queens.
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