Thursday, September 8, 2011
Federal Defense and Homeland Security funding has poured into San Diego since 9/11. KPBS Reporter Alison St John looks at how that money has benefited the region.
In a converted barracks near the San Diego International Airport, the atmosphere is tense as participants of an emergency response training bend over a map spread out on a wide table. The image of urban streets surrounded by a rural area shows where a crisis is unfolding.
Everyone in the room is a first responder of some kind: There are firefighters, police officers and FBI agents. They are used to working in emergency situations, but they haven’t trained this closely together before.
The room is filled with the sound of blaring handheld radios, sometimes half a dozen at once. The trainer, Tom Boatner, said the radios have four channels, so members of the different agencies can communicate with each other.
“There’s a ton of information being passed,” he said, “so part of their challenge is to make sure they are staying on top of things and messages aren’t being dropped and critical information is not getting missed.”
Boatner said more than 200 first responders in San Diego have been through this weeklong exercise, paid for with funding from the Department of Homeland Security.
“There’s no way most agencies could fund this kind of training out of their current budgets,” he said. “If Homeland Security wasn’t supplying the funds, a lot of this training wouldn’t be happening."
The Department of Homeland Security has named San Diego as a Tier One city in terms of risk, one of only 11 cities in the nation. Homeland Security money has beefed up security and surveillance along the border. The Port District has received $32 million since 9/11 to develop a state of the art surveillance system for San Diego Bay and to buy several high speed fire fighting vessels.
The City and the County of San Diego have received more than $165 million since 9/11 from the Department of Homeland Security in Urban Area Security Initiative, or UASI grants. The County’s Emergency Operations Director Ron Lane says more than $100 million of that money has gone into radios like the ones used at the training. Almost another million dollars has gone into creating an Emergency Operations Center, which is guarded by a high fence affectionately known as the "Jurassic Park" gate.
“We have a room here that holds about 80 people,” Lane said. “It has a lot of technology: video capability, redundant communications, everything for ham operators to satellite telephones. We have all the emergency equipment in this facility to make reverse-911 calls. There’s no question that as a region we’re more prepared.”
According to figures from the California Emergency Management Agency, the region received $250 million in 2007 for a Regional Threat Assessment Center. Nonprofits like the Jewish Synagogues also received almost $2 million to increase security.
Things have changed since the early Homeland Security grants, especially after Hurricane Katrina. Countywide only about 30 percent of the urban security money is now used specifically to guard against a terrorist attack. Donna Faller of the City of San Diego’s Homeland Security Office says the money has turned out to be invaluable for dealing with a more imminent threat: natural disasters, like fires and earthquakes.
“Homeland Security grant funds initially were only for terrorist-related activity,” Faller said. “You could only fund things that were a direct nexus to mitigating, protecting or responding to a terrorist incident. Subsequent to that the Federal Government realized that if you’re addressing a building that has collapsed due to a bomb or a terrorist attack, you need the same tools if that building collapsed due to an earthquake.”
While the money from Homeland Security runs in the millions, defense spending in San Diego runs in the billions of dollars. A report by the San Diego Military Advisory Council estimates twice as much money flows into San Diego from the Department of Defense as from tourism: about $18 billion in 2009.
However, although defense spending has increased since 9/11, much of the increase in San Diego has more to do with shifting military priorities. For example, 60 percent of naval resources have moved from the east to the west coast in response not to terrorism, but to perceived threats from the Pacific Rim.
Steven Davis is a spokesman for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego (SPAWAR), which awards defense contracts to private companies. He said SPAWAR awarded more than a billion dollars in contracts to San Diego-based businesses last year. He said looming defense cuts shouldn’t affect their budget too deeply because the threats facing the nation increasingly involve cyber space.
“Since 9/11, the type of work that we do - communications, command and control and cyber-related issues - are very highly relied upon," he said. "That demand is not going away any time soon."
The terrorism that brought down the twin towers triggered the military buildup that now creates an estimated 130,000 jobs in San Diego. The silver lining of 9/11 for San Diego is an economy that’s been protected from the worst of the recession by massive federal defense spending, and a region that’s better prepared for disasters of any kind.