Sept. 11 Heroes Now at the Back of the Line

February 18, 2003

Sometime in the past 17 months, they went from being heroes to budget beggars.

The firefighters whose courage was celebrated in eulogies and in documentaries, whose likenesses were etched onto commemorative coins and molded into toys for the holiday season, now roam the Capitol, helmets in hand.

They don't have the protective breathing gear needed for them to survive a chemical or biological attack, they say. Their radios still can't connect with those of police and other rescuers. They don't have a day's worth of training in how to handle a terrorist assault of any kind, let alone the "dirty bombs" - homemade radioactve devices - the men at the top say could be sent our way.

The politicians, from the president on down, were happy to have firefighters as props when the moment called for pictures to be taken with those who had stood tallest. Now the firefighters stand in line with Washington's other lobbyists. Their place is somewhere behind those pushing this or that tax break, for this or that favored group.

"The connection is still not made that the very people they cherish and depend on are just underfunded," said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the union representing 85 percent of professional firefighters.

Schaitberger and other firefighters stood in the Capitol last week with Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), two of the Democratic leaders who complain that President George W. Bush's approach to homeland security is long on rhetoric and short on real money. They are partisan and looking for a political issue. But they are, in good measure, right.

Congress just approved $3.5 billion for so-called "first responders"-the ghastly bureaucratese that Washington applies to those who would rush into the maelstrom while others rush away. But it is a year late, victim of the annual budget wars.

And only a small fraction of this is new funding. The rest is shuffled out of other accounts that would have gone to local police and fire departments anyway. These other safety programs would be cut. Along the way to approval, congressional negotiators, often at the behest of the White House, cut money the Senate had previously approved for border security, port security, explosives training, grants to fire departments and communications-equipment upgrades.

The new White House budget for 2004 calls for an additional $3.6 billion in homeland security funding for localities. Local governments and many Democrats say at least $7 billion is needed.

State and local governments see the new and urgent need for security against international terrorism as the mother of all unfunded mandates. When Tom Ridge or John Ashcroft emerges from the bowels of the intelligence bureaucracy to declare that the nation must go to Code Orange, municipal police and fire departments are expected to do more than buy duct tape.

In New York City alone there are hundreds of miles of subway tunnels, dozens of landmarks the terrorists have seen on postcards and in the movies. San Francisco and Chicago and even Orlando face something similar, but not nearly the same.

Municipal officials argue that during the Cold War no one ever said the mayors would be on their own in case of nuclear attack. And you have to wonder, if Texas oil fields were in the terrorists' sights, wouldn't we be told that securing them is a matter of national security?

Still, White House officials make the valid point that Washington cannot be expected to pay for every item on every municipal wish list.

"How much of this is terrorism and how much is just funding local initiatives?" said one administration budget expert, summing up the conundrum.

That is the heart of it. We are into the second year of this new era and we haven't decided who does what, when - and who pays for it. So we fight it out, line item by line item, as if protecting the nation's most vulnerable cities were the moral equivalent of protecting the highway funding formula.

It's business-as-usual. And a vulgar insult to the very people from whom we expect the highest valor.