The Peninsula still learning

With less than three months to a federal deadline, the county must spend more than $2 million in Homeland Security funding or risk losing it.

The money, which will be reclaimed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security if unspent by the end of November, represents approximately 20 percent of the $10.6 million the county has received to fight terrorism since 2003.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the county has received about $14.3 million for anti-terrorism spending, 80 percent of which has gone for new equipment, including the creation of a new regional terrorism information center in San Francisco. More than $3 million has been spent to plan, train and conduct terrorism-related exercises.

“Everything is earmarked and in the process [of being spent],” said county Director of Emergency Services and Homeland Security Lt. John Quinlan of the money on deadline to be spent. But strict spending procedures, some requiring approval by the county Board of Supervisors and multiple bidders on contracts, could still put some of the money at risk for being reclaimed, he said.

To prevent losing unspent funds, Quinlan plans to hold a “spare change” meeting of the Homeland Security Grant Approval Authority at the end of the month. The Authority — composed of the sheriff, county health officer, a municipal police chief, a municipal fire chief and a local representative from the California Department of Forestry — will determine where leftover funds should be spent.

The same process was used a year ago to reduce unspent funds to just $328, which had to be returned, Quinlan said. While admittedly not the best option, creative spending has also been employed to keep from losing the funds.

San Mateo County is not alone in its struggle to turn grant funding into actual training, equipment and personnel. Many other cities nationwide have also fallen behind in spending the Homeland Security funds. A June 2004 report by the federal Department of Homeland Security revealed that the spending process has been hampered by the complexity of the grant system, a lack of national standards guiding the purchasing process and high demand for some emergency equipment supplies, among other obstacles.

Aside from spending millions on bomb detecting canines, an armor plated, all-terrain vehicle, bio-hazard response suits, a radiation detector and public notification systems for first responders and the public, Israeli police have been brought in to debrief officials on the latest anti-terrorism techniques.

“They are the best at dealing with terrorists,” Quinlan said. “They’ve been facing suicide bombers since the 1960s, so it’s a way of life for them.”

Following bombings that struck public transit systems in Spain and England in recent years, security spending on Peninsula buses and trains has seen significant increases, as well. Caltrain increased operational security spending to $2.4 million this year, up from $1.8 million in fiscal 2002-03.

In addition, nearly $160,000 has been spent on anti-terrorism equipment and “station hardening,” including fencing, bomb detecting canines and cameras, according to Caltrain.

“I would say we’re in a good place,” said Brian Zamora, public health director for San Mateo County when asked about his department’s ability to respond to a terrorist attack. “We’ve been able to put in a lot of time training out staff and keeping track of biological agents that might be released.”

Since 2001, county health has added eight to 12 staff, some with specialties in monitoring communicable disease outbreaks and identifying biohazardous organisms, Zamora said.

At the county’s publicly funded hospital, San Mateo Medical Center, about $200,000 in funds from the federal Department of Health and Human Services has paid for hundreds of cots, three portable generators, radios and walkie-talkies for medical staff, according to Medical Center spokesman Dave Hook.

The spending on equipment, planning and training hasn’t done much, however, to improve coordination with what many local leaders have called the county’s biggest target, the San Francisco International Airport.

Ongoing political wrangling and foot-dragging has kept the airport from joining the county’s Emergency Services Council, which coordinates emergency response among the county and 20 area cities, county officials said.

“It’s definitely frustrating that they aren’t moving faster to become part of the county [Emergency Services Council],” civil grand jury foreman Ted Glasgow said. The grand jury recently completed a review of emergency preparedness in the county, highlighting the shortcoming. “Any significant disaster at SFO is going to spill over into the county and use county resources,” Glasgow said.

homeland security funding

The total amount the county has received in DHS funding since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the amount the county must still spend.

Fiscal year total DHS funding total unspent

2001 $235,000 $0

2002 $490,000 $0

2003 (first half) $697,000 $1,000

2003 (second half) $1.7 million $52,000

2004 $6.1 million $1.1 million

2005 $2.8 million $1.1 million

2006 $2.3 million *

Total $14.3 million $2.2 million

* Funds approved Sept. 1 but not yet received

Note: All figures are rounded.

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