The Department of Homeland Security does more than just hand out anti-terrorism funds to states. It also makes hundreds of millions of dollars available annually to firefighters for station construction projects, hiring and retaining personnel, response vehicles and protective gear. Like other states, Montana has benefitted from the assistance. But in September of 2008, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general raised questions about $1.3 million worth of expenditures out of a $3.5 million grant awarded to the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for controlling wildfires. Auditors concluded that Montana officials didn’t possess documents needed to verify contract costs and purchases made for equipment and materials. What it turned out to be was an example of how poorly public safety authorities sometimes communicate with one another. Montana relied heavily on other federal agencies for assistance and brokered contracts with them using grant funds. “The state experienced extreme difficulty in obtaining proper supporting documentation from these entities and had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain documentation from the United States Forest Service,” auditors found. The state added that it had no authority to force anyone in the federal government to turn over detailed cost information, meaning the left hand doesn’t always know what the right one is doing. Federal officials admit that some bureaucratic hurdles surrounding the grants don’t always meet the high-intensity scenarios local emergency responders in need of aid generally face, such as a real-time blaze. Lawmakers in Washington have appropriated $5.5 billion for three fire-related grant programs to state and local communities since 2001. There are approximately 30,000 fire departments in the United States served by an estimated 1.1 million firefighters, and as much as 72 percent of them are volunteers. The National Fire Protection Association determined in 2006 that for many smaller communities, firefighters fail to meet the national standard of having at least four responders for an emergency call. Further, a review by the association at the time found that half of all fire engines were at least 15 years old, and 60 percent of the departments did not have enough self-contained breathing apparatuses to outfit all staffers working a shift. During the 1990s, fire service organizations began seeking aid from the federal government in the form of grants to help offset state and local budget shortfalls and because firefighters were under greater pressure to handle new responsibilities, such as responding to medical emergencies. But the Department of Homeland Security today has no system for tracking what portion of the billions in grant funds have gone specifically to gear and training for emergency medical services, congressional investigators wrote in a fall 2009 report. We tried to obtain records from Montana’s Disaster and Emergency Services Division showing how the Treasure State had spent federal anti-terrorism cash it’s received since 2001. But we never made it very far. Many states have not documented their grant spending in electronic form, such as a spreadsheet displaying individual transactions, which leaves only piles of paper records that are frequently too cumbersome to navigate. However, available reports show that auditors dinged Montana in early 2008 for using $4,355 in homeland security grants to cover an employee’s relocation expenses, which officials described in response as an accident. The report also pointed to $40,000 worth of salaries and benefits charged to the grants that weren’t explained with clear paperwork.
G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.More by G.W. Schulz