Department of Homeland Security grants are helping cities across the country strengthen their defenses. So far, most of those dollars have paid for much-needed equipment for first responders -- the so-called "boots and suits" -- or they covered overtime pay for public safety personnel when the federal government raised the alert level. But some localities, including four chosen to participate in the DHS' new Regional Technology Integration (RTI) initiative, are using grants to boost interoperability.

The RTI initiative provides funding to recipients for creating interoperable communication systems, and in the process, the DHS intends to develop models for the rest of the country. Anaheim, Calif., and Cincinnati, Ohio, are the first of four regions announced to pilot the RTI program. The DHS will give each jurisdiction $10 million for its project.

The amount of homeland security resources being directed toward technology projects varies widely, said Chris Dixon, digital government project coordinator for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

"Whether the money is going for IT or the boots and suits is going to be dictated by what each state's internal homeland security planning process decides," he said. "The amount of money spent on technology by states is very uneven, probably ranging from zero in some states to a small percentage in others."

There are two primary sources for federal funding, according to Dixon. Research and development funding, which has gone mostly to universities and research labs, is available through the DHS. Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grants, also disbursed through the DHS, are handed out to cities to help protect critical infrastructure, ports and mass transit against terrorist attacks.

The Office for Domestic Preparedness within the Federal Emergency Management Agency also administers much of the federal grant money. These grants go to states to be disbursed where needed. "Basically all states have to do to get ODP money is have a domestic preparedness plan in place," Dixon said.

States are required to relinquish 80 percent of the federal funding to locals, unless a deal is struck whereby the money is spent on a regional project that includes both state and local agencies.

Obviously all funding won't be spent on IT-related projects, Dixon said, but a larger percentage of it should be. "We know that the nature of intelligence gathering, as well as incident management, are two very highly technology-dependent practices, and not having technology broken out in some significant way -- forcing the states to think about it -- is undercutting it as an integral part of the process," he said.

"That regional stuff, the urban area [grants] may do a better job of emphasizing IT," Dixon said. "It may be a case where each state's homeland security assessment and strategy process may need to be a little more cognizant of the sorts of things UASI is doing. That may really be the issue here."

A few communities throughout the country are using federal grant monies on IT-related projects. Colorado reportedly pooled its homeland funding with local governments on a regional radio system that could benefit all. In California's Santa Clara County, 18 jurisdictions comprising 30 first-responder agencies teamed with Northrop Grumman on a $1.3 million regional interoperability project funded by federal homeland security grants. Lucas County, Ohio, used $1.4 million of the $1.6 million Ohio allotted the county in homeland security money to finance a communication system that will let police, fire and other first responders talk to each other.

Just 50 cities will get UASI grants this year, Dixon said, but more could be trying. "When you're looking at between $5 million and $30 million per state [actually $6.2 million to nearly $50 million for the UASI grants], then you start dividing it 80/20, and then you start dividing it among all the different needs, it gets to be pretty small pretty quick," Dixon said.

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor