R.I. Expects to See Less Security Funding

Jan. 4--State emergency-management officials suspect that Homeland Security grants will dry up in Rhode Island because of new federal rules for distributing the money.

"The fact is, there is less money available to be distributed to the states, so ultimately, that's less money for the cities and towns of Rhode Island," said John E. Aucott, the state Homeland Security director.

Homeland Security grants helped Rhode Island communities buy millions of dollars worth of emergency equipment. The money also helped outfit and train the state's six hazardous-material teams, seven decontamination teams and an urban search-and-rescue team.

But yesterday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that more money will be shifted to the 50 most at-risk cities, and the money will be distributed based on risk and vulnerability, not politics.

No Rhode Island city, not even Providence, is on that list.

Rhode Island will continue to rely on money distributed through a program that funds the states, but emergency officials believe that pool of cash will decrease. It already has.

Rhode Island received $21.3 million in 2004 and $16 million in 2005.

"I'm very concerned about next year's funding," Aucott said.

Yesterday, Aucott and state EMA Director Robert J. Warren eavesdropped on a conference call for the at-risk cities that are part of the Urban Area Security Initiative. Emergency management officials from across the country listened in, but Aucott couldn't keep quiet.

"I said, 'I know this conference call focuses on the urban areas, but what about the other grant program?' " he asked. "They said they'll get back to me."

Before the 9/11 attacks, Rhode Island received about $300,000 annually for homeland security. After the terrorist attacks, the grants skyrocketed and Rhode Island was able to distribute money to every city and town.

"I don't know if we are going to be able to do that in the next round of funding," Aucott said. "We may be looking at competitive grants between cities and towns. We may look at projects that benefit regions."

If the figure is in the $12-million range, the state can spread it out, he said. If it drops to $2 million, Aucott said EMA would have to focus on a couple of specialized projects.

Warren and Aucott fear that the state won't even be able to support the specialized teams that were created in recent years, including the hazardous-materials and decontamination teams.

"A lot of work has gone into that. Are we going to be able to sustain it? It's a big question," Aucott said.

Rhode Island won't know for a while.

In past years, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security told state officials how much money the state would receive, and then state officials would submit plans for spending it.

In 2006, however, each state will receive a baseline amount calculated according to population, and then the states can bid for more money based on risk, need and vulnerability. The grant amounts won't be announced until June.

The 50 cities that are part of the Urban Area Security Initiative receive additional money above and beyond the money distributed to the states.

Rhode Island EMA distributes 80 percent of the Homeland Security money it receives to cities and towns. Providence collects the highest amount. In 2004, the capital city received $1.4 million and $850,000 in 2005.

Providence has used the money in a variety of ways: the Fire Department bought a truck that allows firefighters to refill their air tanks at the scene of a fire; the Police Department trained officers to respond to a weapons-of-mass-destruction incident and major civil disturbances; the Department of Public Works enhanced security at the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier; the city trained health clinics to carry out a mass inoculation program; and City Hall is creating a plan to continue operations during a major catastrophe.

"I am not aware of any threats to Providence, but there is a lot of critical infrastructure in Providence, and we want to be able to protect that and respond if there ever was an incident," said Providence Emergency Management Director Leo Messier.

Next year, Messier hopes to install an alert and siren warning system in the Port of Providence to warn residents of a disaster.

As the state's largest city -- and the second-largest city in New England -- Providence will likely get the lion's share of Rhode Island's Homeland Security money no matter what happens next year.

It's the smaller communities that would be left out.

<<Providence Journal, The (RI) (KRT) -- 01/05/06>>