WASHINGTON — Nearly $1 billion intended to improve the ability of emergency workers to talk to each other has been sitting in the federal Treasury for 18 months.
The problem? States aren't spending the money. Some, such as New York, are just getting started on upgrades that their grants will cover. Others, such as North Carolina, say they can't pay the one-fifth of the cost that federal grants require.
"For God's sake, get with it!" growled Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers, the ranking Republican member of the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security, at a recent hearing on the matter.
The 9/11 Commission, in its 2004 analysis of the World Trade Center collapse, cited the inability of first responders to communicate as a large and deadly problem. Some firefighters, for example, never got the evacuation orders carried over police radios because of confusion over which personnel were assigned which frequency.
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Kentucky offers a more recent case-in-point. A January ice storm killed 36 people in the state, many in counties with no way to handle emergency calls after their normal phone lines and cellular networks failed, according to Air Force Maj. Gen. Edward Tonini, the head of the state's National Guard.
A $1.6 million federal grant to help Kentucky purchase satellite phones for use in such emergencies is unspent thus far. In fact, Kentucky hasn't requested any of the $15 million it was awarded, said Michael Embry, a spokesperson for the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security.
The money comes from a September 2007 appropriation of $1 billion intended to help states pay for multi-channel radios, satellite phones, radio towers, and training to use them. An earlier grant of $2.1 billion had left some communities well-prepared and others untouched.
Rogers said that only 6.4 percent of the 2007 grant has been spent.
The lag doesn't mean that work isn't under way, said Chris Essid, the director of the Office of Emergency Communications at the Department of Homeland Security.
States pay for the work and equipment themselves, Essid said, and may not have applied for reimbursements yet. They have until September 2010 to do so.
A survey of state activity produced some more complicated explanations, however.
For example, New York, which plans to spend $60 million on new radio towers and technology upgrades, is "nowhere near completion" on any of the projects, said Amy Bonanno, a state spokeswoman.
North Carolina hasn't started on a $22 million upgrade to its statewide first-responder radio system, said Capt. Everett Clendenin, a spokesman for the State Highway Patrol. That's because it's not clear where the state's fifth of the money will come from, he said.
In Louisiana, however, projects are moving ahead, and reimbursements are requested weekly, said Brant Mitchell, a spokesman for the state's Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Louisiana has received nearly $9 million of its $19 million grant, Mitchell said, and reimbursement takes about 24 hours.
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