St. Louis region is ready to respond if disaster strikes, but funding cuts have some concerned | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis region is ready to respond if disaster strikes, but funding cuts have some concerned

Sep 8, 2011

The federal government has provided millions of dollars to state and local governments to get them prepared to respond to the next 9/11.

In St. Louis and other regions across the country, the funds allowed fire departments to purchase equipment for all types of rescues and train their people to use the equipment. The requirements of the federal grants forced agencies to work together.

But federal funding dropped by more than 50 percent between fiscal years 2010 and 2011, and no one is sure how much money will be available for fiscal year 2012. And that’s raising some concerns about the sustainability of the region’s plan to respond to a mass disaster.

Despite its fractious reputation, the St. Louis region was ahead of the curve when it came to developing a regional response to emergencies.

Even before 9/11, fire and emergency medical services developed mutual aid agreements. At the time, just St. Louis city and county had heavy rescue capabilities, but they were available to other departments.

"We initially had a kind of task force already put together because it was recognized that a lot of these technical rescues need specialized equipment and specialized training," said Maryland Heights assistant fire chief Steve Rinehart, who was in on all the earliest discussions. "September 11th really drove home the idea that we need really good interoperability, we really need the ability to send major assets from different areas so that the area that suffered the most isn’t burdened with also maybe handling 100 percent of the loss."

Puzzle Pieces

The region’s emergency response paradigm is best pictured as five identical puzzles.

Each box is one of the area’s five urban search and rescue teams – there’s one in St. Louis city, St. Louis County and St. Charles County. Franklin and Jefferson counties field a team, as do Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties in Illinois.

Each puzzle piece represents a piece of equipment or a trained first responder. No matter which box you pick from, the pieces will always fit together to form a perfect picture – in this case, a fully operational task force that can be deployed anywhere at a moment’s notice.

"That’s really key here,” says Rinehart. “When we responded out to Joplin, we took personnel from four of the teams the logistical support from three of the teams, and it was very nice knowing that no matter where those trucks come from and where those rescue technicians come from, they’ve all been trained the same and they all have the same equipment and everything’s interoperable."

Vehicles are staged in strategic locations around the region. Departments that meet that criteria –and have the space - must be willing to insure, title and maintain the vehicle for its life span.

The Cost of Interoperability

This completely interlocking system didn’t come cheaply. Millions in federal grants covered the initial equipment purchases and training.

But equipment has to be maintained. Steve Rinehart says departments that chose to house the vehicles never expected federal funding for the basic upkeep like oil changes and insurance. The cost for his department, which stores a trailer of rescue supplies, is about $1,000 a year.

"Could there be organizations out there that that maintenance could make or break their budget that year? Absolutely,” he says. “Right now, it’s getting done."

But it’s not equipment upkeep that worries Rinehart and other fire chiefs worried. It’s the "people" upkeep – making sure that everyone has the latest skills.

The St. Clair County emergency services headquarters are a massive blue metal garage a stones-throw from a thicket of chemical plants in Sauget, Ill. – a perfect place to house a large Hazmat response unit.

The truck, which includes decontamination showers, is available to county emergency services director Randy Lay, or his regional colleagues, whenever it’s needed.

Lay is equally comfortable working with his volunteers as he is working with the professional firefighters across the river in St. Louis city.

"I know their level of training and I know the equipment they have. And that’s critical for response because you don’t want to be doing that on your first response when you’re actually out in the field and you’re trying to save lives or trying to save property and that’s the first time you’ve met somebody," he says.

Without federal grants, he won’t be able to get his men to necessary refresher courses, or train new people to replace those who leave the force.

Cottleville Fire Protection District chief Rob Wylie says he’ll especially miss the "backfill" money, or grants that enabled him to keep his fire department fully staffed even during training.

"If I send one of my engine companies to an 8-hour or 12-hour training session, I’ve got to hire three guys back in on overtime to fill their spots, and that money just isn’t there anymore, so it’s very difficult for me to absorb the costs of three guys on overtime for 12 hours to get these guys to training," Wylie said.

Hidden Losses

Randy Lay, in St. Clair County, says the funding decline could threaten the base of cooperation that underlies the entire regional response system. Money was an initial – and significant – draw to the table for many chiefs, he says.

"I hope I’ve developed relationships that are going to be able to withstand that loss of funding, but are we going to be meeting every month? No," Lay said. "We won’t have to."

Others find that cooperative spirit more enduring, but say the loss of funding will have other consequences.

"I think the biggest thing is that it would take programs that are in place and running very well and that are producing a very successful asset to the area, those would come to a slow crawl,"  says Steve Rinehart with Maryland Heights. He’s especially concerned about what would happen to the regional coordinating agency, STARRS, which helps distribute grants and develop response plans.

"It’s a total paradigm shift," says Cottleville chief Rob Wylie of the regional  cooperation. "I think we’ve kind of transcended the interagency competition, I think we’ve transcended the interservice competitions, and I think everyone has seen the benefit of it."

But Wylie says he’s heard that any money that becomes available this year will be awarded by Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano – not by any objective measure of the size of a threat a city faces.

And he says any funding reduction leaves Missouri residents vulnerable to the next big attack.

"As Americans, we have pretty short memories, and unfortunately the people that want to do us harm have extremely long memories,” Wylie said. “And I think they know that if they wait, we’ll get bored, and move on to the next shiny thing, and leave the door open for them."