For a period after Sept. 11, it seemed that every facet of public safety in Pennsylvania was under fire – not from terrorists but from investigators and auditors exposing ineptitude, abuse and neglect. Report after report raised questions about whether mismanagement and other problems posed more of a threat to the Keystone State than an assault from Mother Nature or Osama bin Laden. In 2006, auditors said a regional emergency response group covering northwest and central Pennsylvania spent $700,000 on training programs using federal homeland security grants without competitively bidding contracts out to consultants making certain taxpayers received the best deal. “Failure to follow any procurement policies shows a serious disregard for the proper use of grant funds,” a special investigation from Pennsylvania’s auditor general said. The task force also paid $650 a month for two cell phones and $150 on “appetizers” at a state symposium that turned out to be alcohol, according to the report. Counties that together formed the response team answered in a letter that they selected training proposals from consultants most compatible with their needs and compared prices to determine if they were reasonable. But auditors countered that they were shown no evidence this was done. State grant overseers from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency admitted the cell phone charges were “excessive” and promised that the issue was rectified in addition to calling the “appetizers” bill a “mistake” that was later paid back. In early 2007, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell openly condemned the “total breakdown in communications” that occurred among state officials in charge of responding to a severe winter storm that year. Emergency managers didn’t tell the governor how serious things had become, and he had to learn about it from stranded residents who called his office. Rendell sought an outside investigation of the response effort from a consulting firm headed by James Lee Witt, the revered former chief of FEMA under Bill Clinton. A subsequent report said the storm was not the first evidence of problems with response and recovery in Pennsylvania and that previous events illustrated ongoing problems. “The commonwealth government has not fully adopted emergency management as a core principal and cultural priority,” the report said then. “There is a remarkable lack of awareness and understanding of Pennsylvania’s emergency management system, including the emergency alert levels, even amongst senior agency leaders.” In the report’s wake, Rendell ordered immediate changes that aligned with Witt’s conclusions and emphasized that the state was only saved during past storms by the exceptional performance of some responders, which “overshadowed systemic failings and lured us into a sense of complacency.” Later that year, investigators from the Pennsylvania General Assembly criticized a decade-long effort to establish an “interoperable” public safety radio system that enabled emergency responders to communicate with one another across the state. Policymakers committed an initial $179 million to the project during the 1990s, but $132 million more was later needed “due to cost overruns in selecting and establishing tower locations.” An assembly report also cited problems with contractors and said another $57 million may be required for completion. That same month, a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, Richard Skinner, reviewed a sample of purchases made by Pennsylvania with federal anti-terrorism and preparedness grants. Skinner questioned more than $720,000 worth concluding that “various warranties, maintenance agreements, spare parts, and other unauthorized expenses” were not allowed under grant guidelines. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of overseeing such grants for the state, responded that its procedures for handling the funds were being modified to correct the findings. There were other questions raised in Skinner’s audit, but the inspector general also praised as a best practice the state’s use of regional task forces for preparedness. Each is made up of several counties with one of them managing overall homeland security initiatives for the combined jurisdictions, a concept that could serve as a model for the rest of the nation, the report said. It also stated that by directing a centralized team of professional buyers to handle safety equipment purchases, Pennsylvania received volume discounts and ensured gear for responders was standard across the state. The following year, however, Pennsylvania’s auditor general released another public report evaluating the condition of hundreds of dams and levees throughout the state and criticized regulators for failing to enforce laws meant to protect the public. For three years, dozens of high-hazard dams that required annual inspections did not receive them, and the owners of more than 100 dams during that time had not submitted to Pennsylvania authorities their own inspections, which must be certified by engineers. The state defines a high-hazard dam as one in which the loss of life is expected as a result of failure. The majority of Pennsylvania’s 3,174 dams are privately owned with the rest controlled by local, state and federal government agencies. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection in part blamed a shortage of resources, which restricted the number of dams that could be inspected. Officials there also pointed to irresponsible dam owners who did not turn over inspection reports to the state. The department said all high-hazard dams had since been inspected. But the auditor general also found that for nearly 60 high-hazard dams considered unsafe due to poor maintenance and other factors, state officials had not issued any formal enforcement actions or penalties against owners for noncompliance during the period examined. In some cases, the population at risk involved thousands of people. One dam in central Pennsylvania’s Centre County had been deemed unsafe as far back as 1967, according to the report, but the owner was not compelled to make repairs. Another high-hazard dam in Luzerne County was classified as unsafe in 1980 due to a “marginally stable embankment,” but more than two decades later no enforcement order had been issued, and as of late 2007, “these unsafe conditions still have not been corrected.” State authorities responded that leveraging big fines would drain funds needed to make costly fixes, which may take years to carry out, and that their enforcement strategy “ensures cooperation of all but the most blatant violators.” A penalty could become more counter-productive than anything else, they argued. Additional significant reports were issued in recent years addressing other dimensions of public safety and emergency preparedness in Pennsylvania. They are available for download here. We submitted a public-records request to the state looking for detailed information about how federal homeland security grants have been used there over the last several years. A spokeswoman told us, however, that none of the information had been loaded into convenient computer files like spreadsheets. Xeroxing the hard-copy records involved would be “too burdensome,” she said. We were welcome to travel there and examine redacted documents, but that was not practical for our project.
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