Maine making good with less as state sees dramatic decrease in Homeland Security funds

Posted Jan. 06, 2013, at 7:13 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 06, 2013, at 7:29 a.m.

Allyson Hill had been warning her towns for a while: The money is going away.

She wasn’t wrong.

In 2004, the heyday of U.S. Homeland Security grant funding, Maine towns and cities split $22 million. In 2011, they shared $6.2 million.

In 2012, money being spent now, it’s down to $2.8 million.

“They’ve all been ready for this to start happening,” said Hill, emergency management director for Oxford County, where towns asked for night-vision goggles, an antenna and portable radios.

Funding for 2013 isn’t yet set. It might be at last year’s levels, at best. What is perhaps the larger surprise: Some Maine emergency management leaders aren’t lamenting the loss.

Hill is looking to move away from, “‘We need a truck’ or, ‘We need this kind of software.’”

She wants to go back to “everybody getting together and figuring out how best to deal with certain situations,” she said.

Androscoggin County EMA Director Joanne Potvin, who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars, this past year spent $52,813.

If spent wisely, it’s possible to be all geared up by now, she said.

“You can only buy so many sets of turnout gear,” she said. “You can only buy so many computers. After a while you say, ‘Gee, I’m not sure what we would buy this year.’ We’ve learned over the years we make do with what we have.”

Potvin added: “Our emergency response really doesn’t rely on the equipment that we have but it’s on the personnel and their know-how and how ingenious we can be if we need something and we have to make it on the fly.”

Bill DeLong, Maine Emergency Management Agency’s division director for Homeland Security, said funding has dipped around the country. Nationally, those grants declined from $2 billion in 2011 to $1.3 billion in 2012.

Maine recently changed the way it spread the funds, from a statewide competition to a system that gives each county a set amount based on factors such as population.

After setting aside money for police and special teams, Potvin told her towns they had $3,809 each. Lisbon put it toward 12 fire department pagers, Sabattus toward three desktop computers, Turner toward shelter supplies such as cots and Durham toward phone jacks and other equipment for its new emergency operations center in the fire station.

Potvin’s grant coverage area doesn’t include Lewiston or Auburn, which get special funding for larger cities.

In Oxford County, Hill helped divvy up $72,110 among projects such as night vision goggles for Rumford police ($4,500) and improved security at the regional communication center in the county building in Paris ($15,000.)

In Franklin County, EMA Director Tim Hardy picked projects that benefited the entire county. He spent part of $42,607 on a stand-alone radio tower outside a new dispatch center and a planner who will visit every fourth- and fifth-grade classroom in the next year with an emergency preparedness lesson.

DeLong said statewide communications projects, such as mobile radios for vehicles and portable radios for people, were popular.

“In the last couple years we’ve done school security projects, which in hindsight was smart of us,” he said.

In schools, money has gone to cameras, training and emergency plans.

As a result, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut last month, “we were able to very truthfully and honestly answer when people started asking questions, ‘What have you done?’” DeLong said. “There was no question in our mind that we were doing the right thing and have been for years, and we’re better off. Not necessarily that it wouldn’t happen to us, but there’s a possibility that we would be just that much more prepared.”

While Homeland Security grant funds were spurred by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a decade of planning and preparation have put the state in a better position to respond to incidents man-made and not, he said.

DeLong hopes the money continues to come to Maine for that reason, at some level.

“Whether it’s an accident, whether it’s intentional or whether it’s natural, that bit of preparation that you did, that little bit of resilience that you built is going to serve that community in the ensuing days after an event,” DeLong said.

Funding for 2013 is currently stuck in Congress. DeLong understands the grants may be flat-funded but is skeptical.

“I would hate to see this money go away completely because we have ongoing programs and training,” Hardy said. “We are communicating and working with our schools [now] to update their emergency plans and maybe refocus a little toward some of the things we should be looking at.

“That’s just an example of the ongoing things that change from minute to minute, day to day,” he said.

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