Local Leadership in Homeland Security

As the federal debate on homeland security continues, cities and regions must be key players in creating effective, workable solutions to keep communities safe. Not only must first responders and local preparedness teams help with policy-making, but they should also be involved in collaborative research and development efforts to speed the pace of our nation’s technological response to current and future threats. The billions we invest in homeland security today will pay a peacetime dividend tomorrow if they effectively stimulate innovation in strategic industries.

Of course, our first priority is safety. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the continuing emphasis on global military solutions have changed the way Americans think and act. As mayor of the ninth-largest American city, I am faced with reassuring our citizens regarding a growing array of threats, from bioterrorism to dirty bombs. The nation’s airports, borders, water supply, computer networks and utility grids all seem vulnerable — there is tremendous anxiety about security and color-coded warning systems and readiness Web sites don’t really address citizens’ concerns.

What should we be doing? First, detailed emergency response plans reduce the sense of helplessness and provide specific directions for crisis scenarios. Cities have to work with other jurisdictions and entities within their regions to create comprehensive, integrated plans. The city of San Antonio and Bexar County were among the first in the country to create a joint anti-terrorism plan, released in December 2001. Our plan was prepared with the active involvement of numerous partners, including the medical industry, the military, the federal government, educational institutions, utilities and businesses. The Regional Emergency Medical Preparedness Steering Committee, recommended in the plan, brings together first responders, doctors, hospitals and public health professionals to carry out tabletop exercises and analyze and fill gaps.

In order to fulfill their plans, cities have to build the physical networks and the working relationships that allow rapid, efficient response. Using bond funds, San Antonio and Bexar County are constructing an Emergency Operations Center that integrates utilities, government, the military, and other first responders. Similarly, we have just completed the Dark Screen cyberterrorism exercise, the first “go live” exercise after 9/11, and are sharing our findings with other communities.

Third, cities have to step up to their role as regional coordinators to expand the homeland security partnership, because current funding from the Department of Homeland Security may actually perpetuate arbitrary, bureaucratic divisions. In south-central Texas, we have overlapping jurisdictions like Emergency Response Districts, Public Health Districts, and Councils of Government, each of which is eligible for certain funds. Unfortunately, there has been no federal or state funding to integrate these agencies. Using our own dollars, San Antonio is pursuing the creation of an integrated GIS approach to inventory resources, analyze weaknesses and organize joint response.

Public-private collaboration is critical in a fourth area, which is integrating research and develop with practice — or industry with government, to look at it another way. For that reason we are designing an emergency operations center that actually functions as a research and development institute, and we have created an initiative, the Southwest Enterprise for Regional Preparedness, that will export our local cybersecurity, bio-medical and logistics capacities. In order to collaborate, businesses have to know “what’s in it for them.” Companies who get involved in local preparedness plans know that there’s a risk of confidential information being made public, so a focus on technology transfer and developing their markets is critical.

Finally, at the same time that we are protecting our own cities here at home, we have entered an era of American foreign policy in which it seems that we will be deeply committed to nation building. Whether you agree or disagree with our current position in Iraq, I think local governments have a lot to offer as we try to stabilize that country. What have we heard on the news? Lack of electricity, no garbage pickup, difficulties with creating meaningful citizen involvement, trouble training a police force… these are local government issues, bread and butter services in any city.

American cities and their mayors and other local officials have a lot to offer as the United States works to rebuild Iraq. Opening dental clinics, settling property disputes and staging elections aren’t mission creep for us: that’s what we do every day throughout this country, in cities large and small. And it’s important work. In the long run, citizens who are well served by their local democratic government are less likely to perceive America as a threat, and more likely to see us as friends. That will pay a real homeland security dividend.

Edward D. Garza is the mayor of San Antonio, Texas.

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