Real Resources and Real Reforms: A Report from the Committee Chairman

In the years since 9/11, the American people have been faced with the challenge of working collectively to plan, prepare, and protect our nation should another major terrorist attack or natural disaster occur.  It is the responsibility of government – federal, state, and local – to prevent any future attacks and to be prepared to quickly and efficiently respond after disaster strikes. As Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, I know all too well that homeland security is an issue that affects all Americans, and I will do my best to make sure the Department of Homeland Security is equipped to protect our nation. Today, nearly six years after 9/11, our country still has enormous security vulnerabilities – including those in rail and other mass-transit systems, ports, borders, and other critical infrastructure.  In addition, as we learned from Hurricane Katrina, we must take an all-hazards approach to homeland security and not focus all of our attention on terrorism. In January, my colleagues and I started out the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress by overwhelmingly passing H.R. 1, a bill to implement the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.  A key component of the legislation was a provision to distribute a larger portion of homeland-security grant dollars based on risk, an issue the members of the 9/11 Commission gave an “F” to in their last report card.  I believe the bill strikes the proper balance between allocating most of the funding based on risk and ensuring that each State will have the funding needed to reach a minimum level of preparedness. The bill also protects other grant programs, such as the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (FIRE Grants), and Emergency Management Performance Grants to ensure they are not consolidated in the Homeland Security Grant Program. These programs were created prior to 9/11 to address basic all-hazards needs and must continue to address these issues. Congress must also be willing to provide the long-term sustainable funding necessary to develop interoperable communications networks.  To address this, H.R. 1 creates a stand-alone grant program at the Department of Homeland Security to improve emergency communications among state, regional, national, and, in some instances, along the international border communities. To ensure that the funds provided under the program are spent judiciously, the funding will not be allocated until the department’s completion of a national emergency communication plan and a baseline interoperability assessment, as well as substantial progress in equipment and technology standards. As a former volunteer firefighter for 26 years, I have had first-hand experience in emergency response The true catastrophe of the storm was not the storm itself but the failure of our government – at all levels and preparedness. I am committed to strengthening the initiatives that will support interoperable communications and emergency planning and ensure that those on the front lines – firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical personnel – are given the tools necessary to carry out their expanded responsibilities in this post-9/11 world.  It is critical that the FIRE and SAFER grant programs, which are designed to help meet the basic needs of fire departments and firefighters across the country, receive adequate funding. The Bush Administration has tried to slash these programs year after year. The 2005 hurricane season has left our country scarred forever.  While we could not have controlled the hurricane winds and waters of Katrina, we certainly could have controlled how our government responded. The true catastrophe of the storm was not the storm itself but the failure of our government – at all levels. That failure is what has left thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced and unable to go home. We must absolutely assure that FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is being reformed and reborn into an entity that can provide cohesive preparedness, response, mitigation, and recovery efforts. Last year, Congress passed comprehensive legislation to reform FEMA and give it the tools it needs to respond to disasters, both large and small. At the core of these reforms were the recommendations of a February 2006 report that several Democrats on the House Committee on Homeland Security released and which recommended specific reforms for federal emergency management. The most basic recommendation was that the person who runs FEMA should be required to have experience in emergency management. While the current leadership team at FEMA, led by David Paulison, is very experienced, we need to guarantee that FEMA never again becomes a dumping ground for political cronies. While I believe that Chief Paulison is taking some big steps to fix FEMA, he still has his work cut out for him. There are still huge gaps in FEMA’s logistics capabilities, contracting practices, and its ability to provide mass care and housing programs for large numbers of disaster victims. While I recognize that these problems won’t be solved overnight, we must move more swiftly because the next Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 could be right around the corner. As you can see, this new Congress is actively working to provide real resources for our first responders, implement real reforms to our federal emergency-response system, and provide real security to our nation.

Bennie G. Thompson

U.S. Representative Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) is Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.



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