Since September 11, 2001, billions in federal grant dollars have been awarded to state and local governments in an effort to help the nation prevent, protect against, and prepare for terrorism and other man-made threats and natural hazards. The funding has been used to support a wide variety of activities, including emergency communications, law enforcement response operations, intelligence sharing, community preparedness, and numerous other critical capabilities.
Although the nation is undoubtedly better prepared today than on 9/11, questions have arisen over when the United States will be done preparing, and when the federal government can stop providing homeland security funding to state and local governments. The unfortunate answer is “never.”
Now more than ever state and local agencies are on the front lines of the nation’s counterterrorism efforts. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups, coupled with the use of the Internet and social media to radicalize would-be terrorists, has helped inspire homegrown violent extremists and dramatically increased the threat to the United States from within its borders.
The 2014 Boston Bombing and recent attack in Orlando, Fla. highlight this threat and to the difficulty of stopping these attacks. However, despite the evolving threat environment, the United States has been successful in thwarting many terrorist attacks, which is due in part to the increased vigilance of the American public and the nation’s collective investments in counterterrorism since 9/11.
In addition to the threat of terrorism, state and local governments face a wide variety of natural hazards and the growing threat of extreme weather. In the last ten years alone, the United States has endured some of the most frequent and destructive natural disasters ever. This threat is compounded by the fact that we also have aging, and increasingly more fragile, infrastructure, as well as a vulnerable population, with a growing number of elderly and disabled individuals to care for. These and other vulnerable populations are often disproportionally impacted by disasters and require a higher degree of local government assistance during a crisis.
Beyond terrorism and some of the more traditional hazards, state and local governments must also contend with public health emergencies such as Ebola, Zika, and other types of communicable diseases. With every year, a new public health crisis emerges. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies are the face of the response, those infected reside in local communities and the state local public health systems are profoundly impacted by these events. For example, the Ebola response reportedly cost New York City more than $20 million.
State and local governments must also deal with emerging issues such as cybersecurity. Agencies at all levels of government are reliant in some way on technology. This technology is susceptible to being attacked or exploited, so resources must be dedicated to protecting it. The vulnerabilities extend beyond government to the privately owned critical infrastructure that keeps the lights on and supports other vital community services. When this infrastructure fails, state and local communities are impacted and must respond to whatever cascading events may occur.
The persistent and evolving nature of the threats the nation faces highlight the need for continued homeland security investments. However, the threat environment is not the only variable. People and technology are also constantly changing, so the nation must ensure continued investments if we want to stay current and able to adapt to the changing threat environment. The United States will simply never be done training our state and local responders and maintaining our equipment and technology. It should also be noted that at this point, most of our investments are aimed at maintaining the capabilities we have developed over time, and if we do not sustain these investments our capabilities will quickly erode and leave us at risk.
As a nation, we have struggled to explain how prepared we are and how prepared we need to be. Preparedness is a very abstract concept and it can be tough to measure, but we can and should continue to find ways to better measure and articulate our preparednesslevels and the associated gaps. And it is entirely fair to expect state and local governments to make informed investments and to be able to explain how they are using the federal grant funds to enhance preparedness.
However, we cannot let the lack of a unified system or metrics completely cloud our thinking, since by and large state and local governments can explain how they are using the funds to enhance preparedness and mitigate risk and there have been numerous tangible examples of how the funds have improved capabilities. For example, many of the capabilities used in response to the Boston Bombing were supported by federal grant funds and the first responders that day had previously planned and trained together due in part to the funding.
A relatively small amount of federal grant funding actually goes to support state and local homeland security efforts compared to other initiatives. In 2015, the federal government awarded more than $600 billion in grants to the states; however, less than 1 percent went towards homeland security. Most of the grant funding (over $350 billion) went to support health care programs such as Medicaid, which was projected to have about $29 billion in improper payments for 2015, according the federal government’s own payment accuracy website. Again, we can and should ensure the fiscal integrity of homeland security funding, but we must also keep some perspective and not overestimate the size of the problem.
Without a continued investment in homeland security the nation will be less prepared and more vulnerable. When someone calls 911, the phone does not ring in Washington DC- it rings locally and state or local first responders will be dispatched to contend with whatever is waiting. Therefore, we must ensure they have the tools and training necessary to respond effectively. We have to accept the fact that homeland security is an enduring mission at all levels of government.
Much like educating our children or taking care of the environment, we will never be done and some degree of sustained federal investment will be necessary. Determining the right level of funding, where to spend the money, and how to understand the return on investment are challenges with which we will always contend. To assume we can stop supporting state and local homeland security efforts is shortsighted and dangerous.
Homeland security is the cost of doing business in a free society, and we must be willing to pay the price or live with the consequences.
Terry Hastings is a homeland security professional with over a decade of public policy experience, and an Adjunct Instructor for the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, at the State University of New York at Albany.