Since Sept. 11, politicians at every level of government have been talking about "homeland security," but are we really more secure?

President Bush has a plan.

He placed Tom Ridge in charge of a new office and, if the president has his way, Ridge's office will become a federal department. Congress is holding hearings and some legislators are drafting plans of their own.

Around the country, governors are anointing homeland security "czars" to demonstrate concern and to keep watch over the hoped-for federal financial windfall. To be fashionable and attractive to grantors, county politicians are renaming the same emergency management offices they have had for years to "office of homeland security."

Cities and towns just hope there is something left for them when the homeland security train finally makes its way to the end of the track. To many, it seems to be little more than grand political theater.

We must resist cynicism nevertheless, because such is always the case with war, and war it is. Bush has declared it so and troops have been deployed. However, America has been at war many times before without such concern for homeland security, so why is this time different? Because this time the war was not started by a sovereign seeking to elicit military and political capitulation.

It began with an act of supreme intolerance, carried out not by soldiers but by disaffected hoodlums, intended to indiscriminately inflict fear and pain.

Therefore, this war comes with some new rules.

In keeping with tradition, the federal government is fighting the offensive war. The Departments of Defense, State and Treasury together with the FBI, the CIA and many others are pursuing and engaging the enemy around the world on the battlefield, in staterooms and even in the world's banks.

However, the defensive portion of this war has and will be fought by local and state government, downtown and on Main Street. For Americans, it is a new and terrible experience.

We have already seen it. Those on the front lines of the Sept. 11 attacks were not soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines. They were our police officers, fire fighters, healthcare, construction and utility workers. They were our first responders, charged with defending not only the homeland, but also the home, the life and the livelihood of each and every one of us.

Across the nation, they have trained to respond quickly to crime, accident and natural disaster. Responding to premeditated wartime attack will require much more of them and of us.

We learned in New York that communications capability is critical in the aftermath of an attack.

As chief information officers and technologists, we need to fully understand the communications infrastructure of our state and our community. As a result of Y2K we earned our seat at the table with political leaders. Now we should use that hard-won credibility to advocate on behalf of regional and multi-jurisdictional cooperation and investment.

The policy issues of homeland security are our issues: interoperability, data collection, information sharing, balanced access, security and personal privacy.

As federal and state grant money becomes available our public-safety partners will need our help preparing competitive funding proposals. We are experts on creating project justifications and plans. We have years of experience writing and reviewing cost-benefit justifications for large, complex investments.

We have advocated successfully for the investment of scarce resources into enterprise infrastructure, architecture and application because it was in everyone's long-term best interest. Now we can be the "honest brokers" and help politicians understand and balance the need to improve emergency response capability with the ongoing need to invest in more visible things like parks, libraries, education and social services.

If we leave our defensive war fighters to fend for themselves in the difficult and dangerous budget process, we run the risk that they will be dismissed as self-interested.

Steve Kolodney, former CIO of Washington state, put it this way: "Homeland security is digital government with national purpose."

That makes us the experts and means if our homeland is really going to be more secure, we can't leave it to the politicians and war fighters. We have to do our part, too.

Todd Sander is director of the Information Technology Department of Tucson, Ariz.