HAZMAT grants: A culture of cooperation

Charles Rogoff has served as the grants manager for the HMEP program since its inception. When I spoke to him regarding the grant program, he was in the midst of responding to a HAZMAT incident in San Antonio, Texas. Two freight trains had collided, overturning 40 cars and causing 15,000 gallons of poisonous chlorine gas and ammonium nitrate to billow into the air. Three people died in the accident. Still, despite the tragic nature of the event, without the swift response of trained volunteers and professionals, it could have been much worse. Within two hours, about 20 homes were evacuated; residents at 97 others were asked to stay inside and turn off their air conditioning.
“This shows where the rubber meets the road,” Rogoff said, noting that all grantees have his home phone number. As soon as there’s a significant serious accident, he reported, he receives a phone call.
The danger
According to a March 2000 report released by the Department of Transportation (DoT), the department-wide Program Evaluation of the Hazardous Materials Transportation Programs (available at http://HAZMAT.dot.gov/ hmpe.htm), there are approximately 300 million hazardous-materials shipments annually nationwide. The vast majority of these safely reach their destinations without incident, but approximately 400 serious incidents occur each year. When they do, it is critical that a plan exists for immediate action and that first responders are equipped to protect themselves and the public in these unusual circumstances.
Part of the impetus for the HMEP program was the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, and a recognized need to create a comprehensive approach to planning and training that would provide for a swift and efficient response to any HAZMAT incident. HMEP grants may pursue one of two foci: planning or training. Planning grants generally account for 40 percent of total funds expensed; 60 percent support training. The governor or the state agency selected to administer funds must ensure that 75 percent of the funds are passed through to, in the case of planning grants, local emergency planning committees, or, in the case of training grants, local firefighter, police or other first responders. Planning grants are used to develop, improve and implement emergency plans under Title III; conduct commodity flow studies; and determine the need for regional hazardous-material response. Training grants help ensure that public-sector employees can respond safely and efficiently to HAZMAT incidents.
Available funds estimated for 2005 total $12.8 million. In 2003, awards ranged from $4,000 to $968,000, with an $180,281 average. The annual deadline for applications is July 1; funds usually become available in September. Interested applicants should contact the appropriate state agency to see whether they are eligible for funds. The list of designated state agencies is available on the HMEP website at http://HAZMAT.dot.gov/hmep.htm.
The real strength of the HMEP program appears to be the balance between information sharing and autonomous decision-making. “The program endorses the belief that the state knows best,” Rogoff noted, while emphasizing that recipients are encouraged to use the information at their disposal. The HMEP program collects information from various grantees designed to help others with decision-making and to provide basic standards for training courses. Grant recipients are encouraged, for example, to draw upon resources offered by the National Response Team (NRT) Training/Curriculum Subcommittee, which offers guidelines for curricula and training materials. Rogoff cited this information flow from grantor to grantee and back again as a particular point of pride.
Activities supported through the program are intentionally flexible. While the program does outline broad objectives that must be addressed with HMEP funds, state and local leadership largely determine how to meet their objectives. Grant recipients therefore enjoy fairly flexible definitions regarding permissible grant-funded expenses. Furthermore, since grants are reimbursable, the dollars are frequently available when most needed. Reporting, too, follows relatively loose guidelines.
The balance, then, is realizing that while one size does not fit all, there are opportunities for information exchange that can establish best practices.
“This consensus-building approach is vital to the program at all levels,” Rogoff explained, noting that cooperation was built into the program from its very inception: The HMEP grant program evolved from interagency cooperation among DoT, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the Department of Labor and the Department of Energy. This spirit of cooperation continues at the federal level through the NRT committee, which meets monthly.
There is little doubt that the planning and training that occurs through the program would be invaluable should a terrorist attack involve hazardous materials. The new relevance of the HMEP program to homeland security became immediately apparent in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. According to Rogoff, “We were in a unique position after Sept. 11. The [HMEP] grants were readily available when no other federal assistance was immediately forthcoming.” Thanks to the flexibility built into the program—in deference to the needs and expertise of local decision-makers—there was a 25 percent increase in the number of people trained through the program that year.
“There are many brave responders,” Rogoff explained, noting that in order to protect the public they need to ensure that they can perform their duties in a relatively safe environment. “If you just walk in with your boots and have a corrosive substance, you have a real problem. There are a lot of details here.” The HMEP program exists to help first responders and public safety officials to master those details.
As a resource, the materials generated through the NRT and the HMEP program are likely invaluable to HAZMAT professionals. There are, however, other options should your community seek additional funding for HAZMAT incident prevention and mitigation, such as various OSHA, EPA and Homeland Security programs. HST
Kara Mitzel is manager of grants development services at the Grants Office, LLC, in Rochester, NY, a national grants consulting firm specializing in homeland security funding.

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