Report: Homeland security underfunded, unprepared

WASHINGTON — Only 10 percent of the nation's fire departments could respond adequately to a building collapse. Police officers lack the essential biohazard gear they would need to survive a chemical, biological or radiological attack. State public-health labs are poorly equipped; for instance, only two have technology to test for cyanide.

Those are some of the findings scheduled to be made public today by a blue-ribbon panel convened by the Council on Foreign Relations, a respected think tank.

The report concludes that despite the intensive homeland-security efforts already undertaken, the nation's first responders remain significantly underfunded and "dangerously unprepared" for terrorist attacks.

The panel, headed by former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., included former Secretary of State George Schulz, National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Nobel laureates and retired military leaders. It estimated the nation should, over the next five years, spend nearly $100 billion more than current projections on domestic preparedness.

"The U.S. has not reached a sufficient national level of emergency preparedness and remains dangerously ill-prepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil, particularly involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear agent or coordinated high-impact conventional means," the report said.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday, Rudman said: "If you talk to mayors, to governors, to police chiefs, to fire chiefs, they are just not ready. And we had better get ready."

Rudman said the authors of the report had interviewed police, fire, emergency-medical services, public hospitals, public-health agencies and federal law enforcement.

The Department of Homeland Security took exception to the findings. A department official said critics could just as easily have focused on what has been accomplished in the less than two years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"This country is much better prepared not only to respond but to prevent a terrorist attack than we were a short 20 months ago on Sept. 11," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the department. "We have come a long way in raising our protective measures, reducing our vulnerabilities and increasing the capabilities of our first responders."

With help from watchdog groups that monitor the federal budget, the report's authors estimated that federal, state and local spending on domestic emergency preparedness over the next five years would range from $53 billion to $103 billion. But even the maximum still is $98.4 billion shy of what they concluded the true need is.

The panel, called the Independent Task Force on Emergency Responders, sought to avoid appearing to criticize the Bush administration. It said it did not "seek to apportion blame about what has not been done or not done quickly enough," but to point out how much was left undone.

Despite that, the report makes clear that panel members felt there was blame to go around, saying that Congress had "dangerously delayed" appropriating money to emergency responders and that states had not gotten the money to local officials quickly enough.

"The U.S. has both a responsibility and a critical need to provide (first responders) with the equipment, training and other necessary resources to do their jobs safely and effectively."

Rudman said the government should either raise taxes or cut spending in other areas to bridge the funding gap.

Information from Seattle Times news services is included in this report.