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.
"In fact, as communities begin to build their capabilities, we should see them getting less money," Chertoff said at a news conference.
The FBI bomb-kit program shows how even the best-intentioned plans to equip first responders can go awry over the simple question of maintenance.
The program was requested in 1999 by Congress, which had been alarmed by a nerve-gas attack on a Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and sickened thousands. Legislators set aside $25 million for the FBI to prepare state and local bomb squads to deal with weapons of mass destruction.
The FBI developed a special suitcase of tools that bomb squads could take to scenes. The core of the kit was a rugged wireless laptop loaded with files describing explosives and chemical and biological agents.
The kit also included a digital camera so technicians could snap a picture of any strange device and e-mail it to FBI bomb experts for quick advice.
"It was a unique communication tool," said FBI Special Agent Barbara Martinez, a top official in the agency's Critical Incident Response Group.
The "Cobra kits" were handed out to nearly 400 state and local bomb squads across the country in 2003. Each came with a prepaid three-year service agreement and a one-year wireless card.
But apparently, no one realized that the squads might not have the cash to maintain the wireless subscription.
Local officials said it could run $60 a month per kit, totaling a few hundred dollars for a squad with several kits. Also, the kits needed periodic updates, which could run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars, they said.
"It was quite expensive for the local jurisdictions to absorb the cost," said Jerry Swain, bomb-squad commander for Loudoun County.
Montgomery's Love said his department had to stop paying for the system in 2005, just two years after getting it.
"Basically, we're still dealing with the same budget we had 10 years ago, except for personnel costs," he said.
The D.C. and Arlington County police bomb squads also dropped the wireless subscription. The Prince George's County bomb squad chose to replace that system with other technology purchased through federal grants, a spokesman said.
Some local squads said they had more pressing needs than maintaining the system, which they described as occasionally helpful but not essential.
"To say it's something that's going to make or break us on the scene, I would say not," Swain said.
Others said they found the kit valuable because of its wireless connection to other bomb experts and its copious reference material.
"We could carry around 10 textbooks, but it's all there" in the computer, said Sgt. Thomas Sharkey, Metro's bomb-squad commander. Metro has continued to maintain its kits, as have bomb squads run by the Fairfax County police and Virginia State Police.
Jeff Fuller, a spokesman for the National Bomb Squad Commanders Advisory Board, said that many squads had found the kits too expensive to maintain but that he didn't know how many stopped using it. Martinez, the FBI official, also said she did not know.
Martinez said the kits were initially successful in teaching bomb technicians about weapons of mass destruction. Now, though, some of the kits are sitting unused, she acknowledged.
"It is sad -- now you've got that paperweight doorstop out there," she said.
But the FBI made it clear from the start that local and state squads would eventually have to pick up the maintenance costs, she said. "Maybe people didn't read the fine print," she added.
FBI bomb technicians across the country have continued to maintain their kits and can take them to scenes to assist, she said.
Was the project a bad use of $25 million? No, Martinez said, but she added, "I wish it came with the maintenance thing."
Because of advances in technology, the 2003 kits would need significant upgrades to be effective now, she said.
In this year's application for its homeland security grant, the region's bomb squads included a request to upgrade their Cobra kits and pay for wireless cards. But local officials say it is not clear whether they would use their funding award on the project because they have higher priorities for their squads, including protective suits and robots.
"The last thing we want to do is put money into something the grant is not going to keep up over time," said Loudoun County Fire Marshal Keith Brower, who heads a regional committee overseeing bomb squads. "We're flagging those issues right now."