Just a few years after the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed 184 people at the Pentagon, citizens living in the nation’s capital became less concerned about emergency preparedness. So says a report by Washington, D.C.’s Office of the Auditor released in March of 2009. Local governments in the Washington area spent a total of $4.6 million in federal funding during 2005 on a media blitz of television, radio, print and Internet advertisements with the goal of inspiring at least half the area’s residents to better plan for a future catastrophe. One million wallet-sized “personal preparedness planners” were even distributed as part of the campaign. But despite the big investment, according to auditors, the number of people who identified themselves as ready for a disaster as a result of the effort ticked up only slightly. Focus-group research done as part of the project revealed that the public “already has a general idea of what it means to be prepared for an emergency situation. … The bottom line is that citizens are doubtful there is really any way to prepare for an unknown type of attack, in an unknown place, at an unknown time.” Citing interviews with community leaders, the auditors said only a small segment of the public participates in homeland security training sessions and “the rest of the population is very difficult to motivate or reach.” One online initiative, 72hours.dc.gov, walks visitors through how to create a family emergency plan, but just 100 or so people had used it at the time of the report. The audit also found that a threat and vulnerability assessment the city completed in 2008 was “overly generic” in the advice it gave and lacked “specificity that would be useful to policymakers.” Moreover, the assessment didn’t examine what had already been done in the region to enhance security. That’s notable because government watchdogs have repeatedly said homeland security officials are not sufficiently evaluating how billions in federal anti-terrorism grants distributed to local governments have made the nation safer. Congressional investigators came to the conclusion five years ago that there was no convenient way to determine what D.C., Virginia and Maryland had done by then with $340 million worth of grants awarded between 2002 and 2003. “The lack of consistently available budget data for all emergency preparedness and homeland security grants limits the ability to analyze and assess the impact of federal funding and to make management decisions to ensure the effective use of federal grant dollars,” the Government Accountability Office determined. “There is no central source within each jurisdiction or at the federal level to identify all of the emergency preparedness grants that have been allocated to [the nation’s capital region].” To be sure, emergency responders working in the district know they work in one of the highest-threat cities in the country. During the first half-decade after 9/11, the capital helped set a nationwide tone for how others cities could better commit to improving security. Police officers and civilian employees from the city’s Metropolitan Police Department now have personal protective gear. An elaborate emergency notification system is being implemented that includes voice and text alerts and the use of local TV and radio stations for warning citizens about danger. The city’s emergency preparedness program is accredited by experts, a rare achievement nationally. Its interoperable communications capabilities, which enable police and firefighters to communicate effectively amid a disaster, rank high among other metropolitan areas. But at times, new security investments have still come at a price for taxpayers. Last year the Washington Examiner obtained a report through a Freedom of Information Act request showing that officials from the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency had lost dozens of two-way radios valued at $3,200 each for a total of $250,000. The office couldn’t account for half of the 150 radios it had. An investigation by the city’s inspector general found that the radios were in an unsecured location and distributed to employees who didn’t have to sign out for them. Fourteen of the radios eventually showed up for sale on eBay. An agency worker responsible for them who also helped staff a 24-hour command center used a government computer to view pornography during his shifts, the probe found. He was fired. In response to our own public-records request asking for homeland security grant spending information from D.C. city officials, we received two spreadsheets that provided limited details about how hundreds of millions in federal funds were distributed throughout the capital region between 2003 and 2007. You can download the files below. For instance, the D.C. metropolitan police spent $2.6 million in 2004 on anti-explosives equipment including vehicles for a K-9 unit and detection gear, while the Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia directed $8.5 million toward its automated fingerprint identification system the following year. Other buys included fireboats, a $200,000 “sewer system vulnerability analysis,” mobile data terminals and office supplies. The second spreadsheet provides richer data by jurisdiction, type of purchase, quantity and total cost, but it only covers spending from the 2006 Urban Area Security Initiative.
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