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Homeland Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Grants - Helpful for Swine Flu?

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Homeland Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Grants - Helpful for Swine Flu?

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

How did Santa Clara County in California spend its Homeland Security and bioterrorism preparedness grants after 9/11?On public health? Or "toys for boys?"

Tragedy spurs spending spree for high-tech security gear
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

At the Santa Clara County public-health laboratory, microbiologist Kathleen Slater peers into a $24,600 microscope at a sample of West Nile virus. The microscope — and Slater — were paid for with bioterrorism-prevention grants from the federal government.

 

Five new flat-screen Hitachi television-computer monitors, the envy of any home-theater buff, line the walls in a nearby emergency operations center. Day and night, armed guards patrol the local water-treatment plant. A machine sniffs the air for anthrax bacteria at San Jose's main post office. Equipment caches, hospital tents, decontamination trailers, stockpiles of medicine, portable generators: all lie in wait throughout the county, ready for catastrophe.

 

This is the house, largely invisible to the public, that 9/11 built.

 

At least $61 million in homeland security funding has flowed into San Jose and Santa Clara County since the terrorist attacks, out of roughly $7 billion in federal grants aimed at helping the nation's cities and counties prepare for the worst.

 

Spending that money has been messy, plagued by local turf battles, vague direction from Washington and the complexity of some regional projects. Local authorities still haven't spent much of the money they have received.

 

Santa Clara County has spent almost all of its federal grants received in 2003 and 2004, but it has spent only 65 percent of a 2005 grant of roughly $4.1 million.

 

The city of San Jose has spent only 30 percent of a roughly $9.9 million, 2004 federal grant, although it all must be spent by Nov. 30. The city has spent almost none of its $6 million for 2005, but that money must be spent by March 2007 said Kim Shunk, the city's emergency services director. Shunk said it has been difficult to spend the money quickly because much of it is being used to create a complex emergency radio system used by numerous agencies.

 

“We need to make sure we're getting the technology we're paying for,” Shunk said. “We want to do our due diligence and spend taxpayers' dollars appropriately.” 

Despite these hurdles, new equipment, training and people -- and some gee-whiz gadgets -- continue to arrive.

 

Local police officers soon will sling biohazard suits, protective booties and goggles into their patrol cars as they start their shifts. A good chunk of San Jose's and the region's homeland security money is earmarked for that emergency radio system — in the works even before Sept. 11 — that allows police, firefighters and paramedics throughout the Bay Area to talk to one another without dispatchers.

 

Security training

 

What else did Santa Clara County get?

 

Training classes for police officers, paramedics, sheriff's deputies, dispatchers and other workers, according to local emergency and public-safety officials.

Meanwhile, homeland security money paid for a revamped public-health lab that can identify anthrax, tularemia, bubonic plague and other bioterror agents. The lab boasts a high-security section for dangerous viruses, which employees can't enter without FBI security clearance.

In addition to the $24,598 microscope -- which is often used to check blood samples for rabies and West Nile virus -- a new polymerase chain-reaction machine can identify the DNA of an anthrax strain or other bioterror agent within hours rather than days. Slater, the public-health microbiologist, left her job at now-closed San Jose Medical Center after attending a bioterrorism workshop.

 

“It's exciting to me, knowing that I can make a difference, that I can be one of the people who could determine whether something truly is a bioterror event or not,” Slater said. “I want to be part of protecting our community and preventing the spread of disease.” 

One of 10 such labs in California, the renovated Santa Clara County public-health laboratory now serves four neighboring counties that have less advanced facilities. A new health alert network, partly financed by Sept. 11 money, warns doctors of impending crises, like a food-poisoning outbreak or shortage of vaccine.

 

“This equipment has been absolutely critical to the community,” said lab director Patty Dadone. “The new technology really increases our ability to respond.”

 

The health department also got its own emergency operations center to coordinate all medical response during an attack or disaster, including tracking the availability of hospital beds.

 

Protection from corpses

 

At the county coroner's office, 9/11 money bought a mobile morgue that can process bodies at the scene of a disaster, preventing the spread of disease.

 

Fire trucks carry new detection equipment that can sniff out chemical or radiologic weapons. Police officers and sheriff's deputies have new mobile phones and digital voice recorders. Local hospitals are now equipped with portable tents, decontamination showers and satellite phones. Local citizens are being trained in debris retrieval and emergency first aid.

 

It's a grim shopping list, albeit one with a silver lining.

 

Much of this equipment and training would be used not only in case of a terrorist attack but also in any kind of emergency -- earthquakes, floods, a disease outbreak, health and law enforcement officials say. Some already is used daily.

 

“If you save it for a rainy day, when it comes nobody knows how to use it. We've taken that perspective on everything we bought,”said Frances Edwards, who directed San Jose's office of emergency services for 14 years and now oversees the graduate public administration program at San Jose State University. “When people are under stress, that's not the time to be using a system that they haven't seen for a year.”

 

Still, some of the new homeland security gadgets have been criticized as “toys for boys.”

Consider the four Segway scooters purchased for the county's bomb squad, which the Council on Foreign Relations jeered at as an example of misplaced priorities. (The county says the scooters are useful to quickly transport squad members in cumbersome protective suits to the site of a bomb.)

 

A purchase of expensive sonar equipment raised eyebrows in a county with a limited coastline. Officials defended it by noting that the sheriff's department protects 21 reservoirs and part of San Francisco Bay.

 

Whether all this spending means we are safer remains an open question. The new communications systems and emergency plans made possible by Sept. 11 grants mean more cooperation among law enforcement and emergency workers, local officials say.

 

“Our personnel are better prepared,”said Edwards. “But I don't think there's anything we in the Bay Area can do to make ourselves safer. That's something that's beyond the Bay Area until these international issues are resolved. I'm not sure there's anything a local police department can do about Al-Qaida.”