Every July, the eyes and hearts of American citizens are on the cities -- where most of us express peaceful patriotism that includes time-honored traditions such as backyard barbecues, fireworks over large bodies of water and sparklers in the hands of young children.
Last Independence Day, tension and extreme precaution filled the air as we considered what a fine terrorist target a community celebration of America might present. Thankfully it came and went without incident. And this year? It seems cities remain in the national spotlight, but for a different reason. Budget shortfalls that plague states have trickled down to the local level, corroding services and annihilating popular programs. At the same time, heightened demand for homeland security has landed on the steps of City Hall. Across America you can hear the voices of mayors and county administrators shouting in the direction of a certain white house on the Hill, "Show me the money!"
Some local jurisdictions have gotten creative about shoring up the capabilities of first responders. Tucson, Ariz., is using a system called COPLINK that was developed before 9-11. It grew out of dissatisfaction with an all too familiar scenario: Written information and photos are kept in separate and incompatible databases -- and neither database is user-friendly. The Tucson prototype resulted in one system that accesses multiple databases. It searches for criminal records, photos, addresses and associations. It can even discern links within the information, such as relationships between individuals or common contact points. The usefulness of COPLINK for homeland security purposes is evident. Tucson now has partnered with Phoenix and also is interfacing with some Southern California government agencies. And there are many similar, sometimes small yet powerful, applications built with little money and lots of ingenuity.
Everyone agrees that any disaster -- natural or man-made -- instantly becomes a local problem where resources of cities and counties are strained and drained. Sept. 11 was a dramatic demonstration of this reality that elevated the profile of local government. It created "reach" from the once uncommunicative federal sector. Today there are friendly intergovernmental ambassadors such as Mark Forman and Steven Cooper, and the federal CIO Council who invite, encourage and support cross-jurisdictional collaborations. Most local government leaders welcome the outreach, but first responders and local infrastructures need more than goodwill. They need funding to create the kind of homeland security program outlined by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley in a U.S. Conference of Mayors presentation:
1. Every metropolitan area will have a local intelligence network where police from every jurisdiction will share information daily, instantly and routinely.
2. There will be a single federal watch list for terrorists, as easily accessed by a police officer on the beat as by the head of the CIA.
3. Every metropolitan area will have a bio-surveillance system in partnership with hospitals, providing real-time information on symptoms encountered in emergency rooms or by paramedics on the street.
4. Every metropolitan area will have assessments of the vulnerability of major infrastructure facilities and other likely targets.
5. All localities will have emergency response plans graded to the level of threats locally and nationally.
6. All first responders, including firefighters, police and health-care workers, will be properly equipped and inoculated.
This wish list reflects the importance of local governments in the homeland security arena. If this Independence Day comes and goes without incident, and the ensuing months remain terror-free, O'Malley's list and those of other vigilant mayors remain essential to securing America's future.