South Portland, home to six of Maine’s top 10 potential terrorist targets, expects to keep getting federal security money, while Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough may have trouble continuing to get hundreds of thousands of dollars for fire equipment.

Continuing a trend begun in 2004, federal homeland security funds are shifting away from rural states and channeled into urban centers directly, where risk of terrorist attacks is assumed to be greater. That means some rural states have had their homeland security funding cut in half. Maine’s share went from $14.7 million in 2005 to $7.1 million in 2006.

Bruce Fitzgerald, homeland security grant coordinator for the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said the shift in funding has made the bid process more competitive. This year Maine communities submitted 171 grant applications for a proposed total of $36 million. Only $11 million was available to distribute, Fitzgerald said.

The funding cuts have raised concerns that a communities’ ability to respond to major emergencies will be hurt. Cape Elizabeth recently received a $120,000 grant to purchase a “fast attack” brush-fire truck, and Scarborough is expecting delivery next week of an emergency command van for use in large regional disasters.

In the pre-9/11 days some counterterrorism grants existed, said Fitzgerald, but they only provided about $100,000 to the state. Following 9/11, in fiscal year 2003, the state initially received $5.7 million, before $15.2 million was included in the first Iraq war budget. Federal homeland security funding for Maine reached a peak in fiscal year 2004, when the state received $22.4 million. The next year a $7 million cut resulted in Maine receiving slightly less than $15 million. The trend continues, with Maine slated to receive $7.1 million in 2006.

Retired Army Col. David Hunt, a counter-terrorism expert who lives in Scarborough, said the federal homeland security bureaucracy is “incompetent” and failed its biggest test to date, the response to Hurricane Katrina. He called its creation “the biggest mistake since 9/11.”

George Flaherty, director of Cumberland County’s Emergency Management Agency, said that homeland security funding is used in an “all-hazards approach,” which means it’s not just terrorism communities are preparing for, but also natural disasters, public health crises, bio-terrorism, utility failures, etc. “If terrorism doesn’t get you, then Mother Nature will,” he said.

Buying gear

In the past four years Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and South Portland have received more than $1 million in federal funding to purchase new equipment, upgrade communication systems, increase security, train first responders and design emergency management plans.

Examples include Cape’s $134,000 purchase of a new radio repeater in 2003, Scarborough’s purchase of $53,000 worth of portable radios and pagers for first responders and number keypad door controls at all fire stations, $17,000 spent by South Portland for a trailer to house their hazardous materials response equipment and $25,000 spent by South Portland for training and exercises.

B. Michael Thurlow, Scarborough’s fire chief and part time director of the town’s Emergency Management Agency, said he knew from the very beginning the money would only be available for a limited amount of time. He said it has been a “great opportunity” to strengthen the town’s infrastructure and get necessary equipment that otherwise would have taken much longer to obtain, and without using local tax dollars.

Thurlow said competition and limited funds are driving communities to work together more. “We all do so much in one year,” he said. “We’ve tried to go out and pick up different projects so we wouldn’t duplicate efforts.”

Jeff Temple, South Portland’s director of emergency management, said regionalization of emergency response efforts has been “the name of the game” since the beginning.

For example, even though South Portland has hundreds of tankers unloading the bulk of the state’s heating oil and gasoline at the city’s wharfs every year, the city does not own a fireboat. South Portland Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said that’s because Portland has a fireboat South Portland can use.

Other examples of regionalization include the hazardous materials response team that South Portland created, which is one of 13 hazmat teams available for emergencies around the state, Scarborough’s new regional command van that was purchased with local, county and federal homeland security funds and South Portland and Cape Elizabeth’s joint purchase of a mobile air tank refilling system.

South Portland has developed an Emergency Operation Center, which has become the model for the state, Temple said. It would act as the nerve center for a potential response to a terror attack, but would also be used as the regional center of operations in cases of a hurricane or flood response effort.

Hunt said it is vital that first responders have good communications equipment, saying that was the biggest problem resulting the deaths of emergency workers on 9/11.

“We don’t just buy for a terrorist attack that may or may not happen,” Temple said. “Dual use is very important.” The equipment purchased by South Portland and the other communities with homeland security funds is equipment that first responders could potentially use every day.

But, Temple said, first responders in every community can’t have every piece of equipment and capability. “Just make sure if you don’t have it, your neighbor does,” he said.

In some cases, however, adjacent communities have the same equipment to make a stronger team on a regional basis. Cape Elizabeth’s new brush truck, which is similar to a large, four-wheel-drive pickup truck, will join Scarborough’s existing brush truck in a two-vehicle “task force” available to fight forest fires countywide.

Cape Elizabeth Fire Chief Philip McGouldrick said the potential exists for forest fires in Cape Elizabeth, “and just like the hurricane that hit New Orleans you have to be prepared for the unexpected.”

Local fire chiefs and emergency management directors agree that they are better prepared for any situation, whether it be a terror attack, a chemical spill or an average structure fire.

“We’re a light year ahead of where we were five years ago,” Temple said, in terms of capabilities, training, equipment, emergency management and regional cooperation.

“The days of a firefighter being only a firefighter are over,” Temple said. Today, firefighters need to be hazardous material experts, chemists and computer technicians, he said.

Changes in funding

McGouldrick said while homeland security money seemed to be “drying up” this year he expected the majority of the money would go “to the Portlands, South Portlands and Bangors, the places with greater need.”

South Portland Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said the shift in funding “makes some valid sense.”

“Anybody who didn’t see that coming wasn’t paying attention,” he said.

Even though Guimond said the likelihood of a terrorist attack in South Portland is low, the city contains vital infrastructure essential to Maine’s supply of heating oil and gasoline – six oil corporations and over 150 oil tanks – and is a port, railroad hub and site of the largest retail center in the state. For those reasons the city receives additional money set aside for major metropolitan areas. Four other areas receiving additional funds are Portland, Bangor, Lewiston/Auburn and Augusta.

Temple said South Portland could see a decrease in funding, but he was confident the city would receive close to the $700,000 applied for in 2005. Communities without any risk or vital infrastructure will see a reduction, he said, and “some towns will probably see their amount shift to zero.”

“It’s a real concern,” said Flaherty at the county agency. If funding dries up departments will not be able to maintain their level of readiness, he said. Firefighters who have been trained to deal with certain things such as hazardous materials need to be continually retrained. “If they don’t, their skill level will reduce or disappear,” Flaherty said. “It’s one of those things you can’t let get stale.”

“Also, we have a long way to go … in preparedness,” he said.

In the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and lessons learned from the terrorist attacks in New York City and London, where rural areas were used for staging grounds by the terrorists, some people argue that Maine has potential risks that need to be continuously addressed.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, opposed the 2006 homeland security appropriations bill because she said, “it’s a mistake to concentrate the majority of assets in large urban areas. … Even rural states have vulnerabilities.” She cited as examples Maine’s long coastline, border with Canada and the fact that two of the 9/11 hijackers passed through Portland International Jetport on their way to New York.

And in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, risk may be redefined. McGouldrick said events like Hurricane Katrina “could then put Cape Elizabeth back in the focal point because of how we are situated on the coast.”

Hunt said first responders in towns such as Cape and Scarborough should be getting as much money as they need to be prepared. “I don’t care if they get Cadillacs to fight fires,” he said.

South Portland Fire Chief Kevin Guimond, left, and the city’s full-time Director of Emergency Management Jeff Temple stand outside the city’s new trailer that houses the departments hazardous materials response equipment and is a mobile technical operations center. South Portland has a hazmat team that responds to calls across the state.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.