Nearly a year after President Bush called for a nationwide network of volunteers who could be mobilized to provide emergency help after a terrorism attack, attempts to recruit and train such volunteers are underway across the country but have been slowed by delays in federal funding of the program.
In the Washington area, Arlington County and the District are the first jurisdictions to begin assembling the Citizen Corps that Bush envisioned in his 2002 State of the Union speech. Both have started major efforts to educate citizens on how to prepare for a terrorist strike, and both have begun the process of enlisting volunteers to help with law enforcement, public health and rescue efforts in a disaster.
But local government officials and volunteer managers say they are concerned that if promised federal money does not arrive soon, the volunteerism campaign will stall as the shock of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks grows more distant.
"There is no jurisdiction in the country doing what we're doing, in a way that engages our population," said Peter G. LaPorte, director of the D.C. Emergency Management Agency, which since September has identified 600 prospective volunteers and held 85 community meetings to prepare emergency plans in 39 neighborhoods.
But LaPorte said his agency lacks the funds to follow through on enrollment and training. "It's like we've served a lot of appetizers. Now people want the entree," he said. "How do we sustain the effort we've built up?"
In his State of the Union speech in January, Bush called for a new "culture of responsibility" and described a Citizen Corps for homeland defense and emergency preparedness composed of 400,000 trained, volunteer rescue workers. He also pledged to double the Peace Corps over five years and add 200,000 AmeriCorps and senior volunteers, and he asked every American to perform 4,000 hours of volunteer service over a lifetime.
"Through the gathering momentum of millions of acts of service and decency and kindness, I know we can overcome evil with greater good," Bush said.
But budget wrangling with Democrats and conservative opposition to government-sponsored volunteerism, led by House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), have blocked the Bush administration from swiftly following up on its plan. Of $230 million in funding that the administration proposed for the Citizen Corps, about $25 million has been approved. The House has proposed an additional $30 million and the Senate $15 million for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, with a final version yet to be negotiated.
The Citizen Corps announced its first $21 million in grants Dec. 4. It has a database of 54,000 people across the country who signed up on the Internet as prospective volunteers, and it has recognized the efforts of 17 states and 232 city and county councils that have started recruiting volunteers.
"Obviously, we're looking forward to a lot more growth," said Lindsey Kozberg, spokeswoman for USA Freedom Corps, the White House coordinating office for Citizen Corps. "With programs increasingly in place and as people truly understand them and how to get involved, we think we are headed for a period of very exciting growth."
The Office of Homeland Security is preparing to start a national public emergency preparedness campaign early next year. Developed with the Ad Council and funded through a $1 million-plus grant by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the government anticipates a multimedia message that will outline the basic steps households should take in a terrorism-related emergency.
Arlington's effort so far has relied entirely on local funding. Volunteers from nonprofit groups and the Arlington County Civic Federation, which represents 80 community associations, have given more than 20 neighborhood presentations on emergency preparedness. County Manager Ron Carlee has provided personnel from fire, police and other agencies to help and train volunteers in rescue skills.
The county fire department has trained two community emergency response teams with a total of 36 members, Capt. Clare Halsey said. The county's CERT program, pioneered in California to help citizens respond to earthquakes until government help arrives, gave each Arlington participant 16 weeks of rescue training and a hard hat, goggles, gloves, a flashlight, a dust mask, a first aid kit, a crescent wrench, a reflective vest and a backpack.
"People naturally want to help. The trick is to give them the training to know how to help safely," said Jackie Snelling, a leader of Arlington's Citizen Corps initiative.
The earliest the county can apply for federal aid is January, and then it will have to compete with all Virginia jurisdictions for $400,000 in Citizen Corps grants to the state.
"We don't have any [federal] funding," Snelling said. "We need national support, with an understanding that it has to support local development" of programs.
The District so far has contracted with local agencies and nonprofit groups to carry out its work. The city's Emergency Management Agency, which has an annual budget of $3.1 million, received a two-year, $16.5 million infusion of federal anti-terror aid and spent about $1.8 million on three projects to develop emergency programs with citizens, schools, universities and business.
Virtually all D.C. households have been given a 12-page preparedness guide, either through the mail or in a newspaper insert, and 10,000 book-size guides are being printed. In community presentations, the city is advising all 572,000 residents to buy battery-powered weather radios that can broadcast an alarm and information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration around-the-clock.
"If it's 3 a.m. . . . pretty much no one is watching TV or listening to the radio," LaPorte told about 30 residents at the Kenilworth Recreation Center this fall. "If you are going to spend 20 bucks this year, buy a NOAA weather radio."
The District and the American Red Cross are spending an additional $720,000 in federal grants -- including $400,000 in Citizen Corps money -- to start enrolling 1,500 disaster volunteers, neighborhood watch leaders, citizen rescue workers and volunteer police, paramedics and doctors, all of whom have yet to be signed up. The Red Cross also has teamed up with Harvard Business School alumni and the Ford Foundation to develop 2,000 free preparedness kits to give to small businesses.
With the District facing a severe budget shortfall, it will be hard-pressed to expand its Citizen Corps quickly if Congress and the Bush administration do not make it a priority, D.C. officials said.
Cheryl Guidry Tyiska, president of the District-based National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, an umbrella organization that includes such groups as the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, said she is hopeful about the future of the Citizen Corps but that the opportunity to galvanize volunteer support is fleeting.
"The government says we need to be prepared for another major disaster. But if they don't fund that effort, it's an empty exhortation," Tyiska said. "If you sign people up, they get excited, motivated and volunteer, and then drop out -- you're going to have one heck of a time getting them to sign up a second time."
Amitai Etzioni, a George Washington University professor and leading advocate of community service, praised the Bush administration's leadership but said its effort to promote volunteerism after the Sept. 11 attacks has lost momentum. He also said the effort has been diluted by too wide a focus and too much bureaucratic complexity, with three federal departments involved.
"It's a very sad situation," Etzioni said, adding that he feared "a waste of an opportunity of a generation."
On the ground, many residents remain hungry for information and eager to help, local officials said.
At a three-hour meeting on emergency preparedness held in the District's Kenilworth neighborhood this fall, citizen interest was high after a drumbeat of alarming news about chemical, biological and nuclear threats and the possibility of war with Iraq.
Wayne Lockett, 51, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member and Evans Middle School teacher in Northeast Washington, said he was ready to sign up as a volunteer, especially in a city with a large number of poor, elderly and ill residents. "It's more important than ever. If we don't learn how to organize our community, we're just throwing ourselves to the wolves" in a crisis, he said.
Christine Milliken, public education director of Arlington's Citizen Corps program and a member of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said the goal of creating a reliable volunteer network is achievable.
"I don't think the air is out of this issue. Lots of people don't know what to do. They say, 'What's going to happen? I work in the city -- what do I do with my kids?' " Milliken said. "We don't need people to give lots of their precious time doing this. We need them to spend a little time."