Upkeep Of Security Devices A Burden

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007

In 2003, the FBI used a $25 million grant to give bomb squads across the nation state-of-the-art computer kits, enabling them to instantly share information about suspected explosives, including weapons of mass destruction.

Four years later, half of the Washington area's squads can't communicate via the $12,000 kits, meant to be taken to the scene of potential catastrophes, because they didn't pick up the monthly wireless bills and maintenance costs initially paid by the FBI. Other squads across the country also have given up using them.

"They worked, and it was a good idea -- until the subscription ran out," said Mike Love, who oversees the bomb squad in Montgomery County's fire department. At the local level, he said, "there is not budget money for it."

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the area has received more than $1 billion in federal money to strengthen first responders and secure the region. That money has bought satellite phones, radios, protective suits, water-security monitors and a host of other items.

But local officials are grappling with how to maintain the huge infusion of equipment. Like a driver whose 5-year-old luxury sedan has worn-out brakes, cracked tires and engine problems, local governments are facing hefty bills to keep their gear working.

The region has a long list of terrorism-fighting items that need parts and service. Officials recently set aside nearly one-fifth of the area's latest federal homeland security grant -- about $12 million -- to cover maintenance over the next two years.

The shopping list includes $120,000 in new batteries for emergency radios; $400,000 to maintain chemical and radiation monitors for rivers; and $250,000 in replacement equipment for top officials' videoconferencing system.

Wanting to avoid a maintenance time bomb, governments are starting to plan for the end of the decade, when state and local jurisdictions will probably be forced to shoulder most of the costs.

"There's an agreement we're going to start weaning ourselves, such that more and more, we'll pick up" the maintenance costs, said Fairfax County Executive Anthony H. Griffin, who heads a committee of local government administrators working on the grants.

In some cases, officials are slowing homeland security projects while the question of upkeep is worked out.

This year, for example, the region asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for more than $13 million to build a broadband wireless network for emergency workers. In the end, officials decided to spend just $1 million -- on plans that will determine the maintenance costs.

Behind such caution is concern that the anti-terrorism dollars that have rained down on the D.C. area in recent years might begin to dry up. Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, warned cities recently that the grants were not like Social Security checks that would arrive year after year.

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