NO ONE WHO has been even mildly aware of the fate of the vast sums allocated to homeland security over the past several years will be surprised by the content of a new General Accounting Office report on "first responder grants" in the Washington area. Among other things, the report found that although there have been important regional emergency exercises, the District and surrounding Maryland and Virginia counties were not always able to coordinate the spending of the $340 million that Congress has allocated the region since Sept. 11, 2001, and were not always able to say precisely how the money was spent. The result was a good deal of duplication. For example, at least five local districts had either purchased or planned to purchase new command vehicles -- police command buses, fire and rescue command buses, mobile command units -- but none had looked into sharing this equipment with neighboring counties.

More disturbing, and much less surprising, was the report's discovery that none of the jurisdictions was working to meet particular first-responder standards. That, however, is not a problem unique to this region. In fact, as the GAO report points out, there aren't any first-responder standards. There are as yet no benchmarks to determine, for example, how many people per hour could be decontaminated after a chemical attack, a figure that would help fire departments develop realistic training exercises and procedures. This absence renders any realistic oversight impossible. Although the D.C. emergency management program is one of a few in the nation to have passed a recent inspection, it still isn't possible to say that the District spends too much or that Fairfax County spends too little when there aren't standards against which such spending can be measured.

Yet what is true of the District is even more true of the rest of the country. At least in the national capital region, the likely targets are clear: the White House, the Capitol, the government. By contrast, cities such as Los Angeles have had to develop lists of priorities from scratch, balancing the airport against the freeways against Grumman's Chinese Theater. In doing so, they at first had little assistance from the Department of Homeland Security, whose officials' initial attitude might be best summed up as "we're waiting for the cities and states to tell us what their priorities are." The department now says it is making progress developing operational standards, national preparedness goals and inspections, such as those the District has met, as well as finding ways of streamlining a messy and confusing grant system. Congress should keep demanding evidence from the department that these goals are being met, for the sake of both this region and the rest of the country.