Millions Spent After 9/11, But are We Really Safer?

STUCK IN PARK: One of the Denver metro area's five $388,000 big-rig-sized mobile command units is housed at an Aurora police station. The vehicles are more likely to go to a county fair or training exercise than to an emergency. THE DENVER POST | ANDY CROSS
STUCK IN PARK: One of the Denver metro area's five $388,000 big-rig-sized mobile command units is housed at an Aurora police station. The vehicles are more likely to go to a county fair or training exercise than to an emergency. THE DENVER POST | ANDY CROSS

Colorado governments have spent at least $354 million on homeland security since Sept. 11, 2001, but The Denver Post found that purchase records are in disarray and the most remote counties got a disproportionately large share of the money.

The Sno-Cats, Bears, ballistic shields and body bags no doubt have made Colorado better prepared to handle a terrorist attack. But how much better is unclear.

“Here’s the problem: The Department of Homeland Security​ actually has no way of knowing what the money was used for,” said Matt Mayer, who formerly headed the federal agency’s terrorism-preparedness office. “We know we bought a lot of stuff. But we don’t know where that stuff is, what condition it is in and whether our first responders know how to use it properly.

“And at the same time, we know we’ve wasted a whole lot of money. I was in charge of this program. So I can speak from experience.”

David Turner, a program analyst with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said it was never the agency’s intent to know where every dollar was spent. Firefighters and law enforcement officers said they use some of the anti-terrorism equipment daily, while some has sat unused for years in garages and the trunks of patrol cars.

Documents released to The Post under public-records laws show examples of sloppy accounting, purchases that had little to do with fighting terrorism, confusion and a lack of coordination, particularly in the program’s early years.

For example:

  • A million-dollar grant check sat for six months in a defunct Denver mailbox, unknown to emergency officials whose accounting system failed to note the missing money. The city has changed its accounting system.
  • Denver spent $11,250 on refrigerator magnets, $6,399 on pens, $13,223 on baseball caps and $4,759 on lightsticks to promote citizen preparedness — expenses criticized in an audit. The city has since stopped buying such promotional items.
  • A $54,000 fifth-wheel camper was parked in a remote Lake City field for nearly four years because local deputies thought they couldn’t use it unless terrorists attacked. Now it’s 20 minutes outside of Pagosa Springs, hooked up a couple of times each year as a base camp for Hinsdale County sheriff’s deputies patrolling elk and deer hunters.
  • The Denver metro area has five $388,000 big-rig-sized mobile command units more likely to go to a county fair or training exercise than an emergency. The vehicles — rolling mini-police stations with conference tables, white boards and computers — rarely leave their garages. The vehicle at the Greater Brighton Fire Protection District, for example, responded to four emergencies and 31 non- emergencies in 2009 and 2010.
  • FUNDS FAR AFIELD: This $54,000 fifth-wheel trailer, purchased with federal funds, is used as a substation a couple of times each year by Hinsdale County sheriff s deputies patrolling during hunting season. (Jennifer Brown, The Denver Post)

    At first there was a “very large feeling of entitlement,” an attitude of “we all want our own” — and not a lot of willingness to train and share, said Lin Bonesteel, program manager for the Urban Areas Security Initiative, a grant program that gives the Denver region extra money. She worked in California in the early years of the program and came to Colorado in 2009, after the purchase of the command vehicles.

    The Post attempted for the first time in Colorado to account for all homeland security spending in the decade since Sept. 11. The state provided budget figures showing grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security totaled $354 million since 2002, mostly for local anti-terrorism and disaster programs.

    About half of the money bought equipment, and the state provided a database of equipment purchases. But that database is incomplete in part because three agencies — the Department of Public Safety​, the Department of Local Affairs and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security​ — ran the program. It holds little information about purchases from 2003 to 2006,when Local Affairs was in charge and Colorado received $125 million in homeland security grants.

    State officials acknowledge record-keeping was hindered by the program’s repeated change in leadership and inconsistent accounting by the nine homeland security regions in the state. But they insist the bulk of the equipment purchases were worthwhile. Colorado is far ahead of where it was on Sept. 11, 2001, said Larry Trujillo, the state’s homeland security director.

    “We have better equipment. We’re better trained,” he said. “I thank God every day for the money that’s been invested. Until something happens, we won’t know. But we are better.”

    Of all the man-made threats, a toxic-chemical release involving trucks or trains carrying millions of pounds of anhydrous ammonia and other chemicals through Colorado each day is the chief worry of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security. The natural disaster that elicits the greatest concern is a massive forest fire.

    Consider what the state has today that didn’t exist on Sept. 11, 2001.

  • A 35-employee fusion center, a hub for intelligence gathering that helped track would-be terrorist Najibullah Zazi​ and find the beauty shops where he bought bombmaking materials. During lulls, the center is working on another multijurisdiction crime: auto theft.
  • A 32-desk emergency operations center in the basement of Denver city hall, where law officers, the Red Cross, and water, transportation and public health officials can gather to plan if there ever were an attack of mass proportions. The center was buzzing with officials during the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
  • A statewide radio system — one not without flaws and dark patches, but a network that connects law officers and firefighters from one end of Colorado to the other. It now handles 86 million calls a year from first responders.
  • Self-contained breathing apparatus for thousands of firefighters, which protect them from chemical, biological and nuclear radiation hazards — but are also useful against chemicals released by a house fire.

    The Denver Post analysis of Colorado’s homeland security spending also found that the most-remote and least-populous regions were awarded much more anti-terrorism money per person than the largest cities.

    In the San Luis Valley, a six-county region with about 46,000 residents, Colorado spent $7.3 million in homeland security grants since 2004, or $159 per person. That’s eight times what was spent per person in the Colorado Springs region, home of four military bases and the Air Force Academy.

    Denver qualifies for a separate multimillion-dollar grant each year as a metropolitan area protected by the Urban Areas Security Initiative program. Yet, even with that extra pot of money, the 10-county region that includes Denver has been awarded one-sixth as much homeland security money per person as the San Luis Valley. Per person, the southeastern farmlands and the Gunnison and Durango areas also fared much better than Denver.

    Mayer, a former Colorado resident who left the homeland security program after Hurricane Katrina​, has since written a book calling for more protection and less pork in homeland security spending.

    He said the higher per-capita spending in rural areas of the state reflects a wasteful pattern that occurred nationally. Wyoming, for example, received twice as much state grant money per person in the past three years as New York and six times as much as Colorado and New Jersey.

    EXPLOSIVE ISSUE: Deputy Police Chief Andrew McLachlan maneuvers one of the two bomb robots Pueblo purchased for $142,000. The city has just one bomb squad, but McLachlan says he has no plans to sell the second robot. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

    “It’s not a federal responsibility to buy Motorolas (radios) for firefighters in the San Luis Valley,” he said. “That’s what has the government broke — diverting money to places where there are not high values and high consequences (for terrorists).”

    Rural law officers fiercely defend their need for more money per person. Before the grant money, they say, many towns had subpar equipment for daily law enforcement work, let alone a disaster.

    “Our philosophy is that, to a large degree, if you are prepared for a propane tank exploding in downtown Gunnison in an accident, you are just about as prepared for that if it was a terrorist attack,” said Scott Morrill, emergency manager for Gunnison County.

    Before buying its $220,000 hazardous-materials truck, Gunnison’s hazmat team used a 1996 ambulance with several hundred thousand miles on it. The crew, which responds to 18 to 20 calls a year, built a wooden box on top to carry equipment.

    Hinsdale County, population 843, is one of the most remote counties in the continental United States.

    That’s why officials there asked for and received an oxygen generator, radios, a command trailer, off-road vehicles and a snowmobile. The county also bought global positioning devices, surveillance binoculars, a bolt cutter, night-vision goggles, telescopic lights in each cruiser for night work and an $1,100 digital camera. In all, the county received at least $590,000 in homeland security equipment — $700 for every man, woman and child in the county.

    “My whole focus on this has had to do with our remoteness and our isolation,” said Jerry Gray, emergency manager and coroner. “We are a long ways from help. We expect to be the first one cut off and the last one restored.”

    Residents of rural counties received a disproportionate share of homeland security dollars in part because Colorado chose to create nine “all-hazard” regions, leading to certain built-in costs.

    The north-central region, which includes Denver, has 61 times as many residents as the San Luis Valley region. Yet both have an emergency operations center, a full-time homeland security coordinator, and training, planning and grant application requirements.

    The regional approach did help police and fire agencies from different counties plan and train together and share resources.

    “In my view, the most important thing we’ve accomplished is the ability to work collaboratively,” said Scott Kellar, homeland security coordinator for the north-central region.

    Rural areas also benefited because Colorado invested heavily in a statewide radio system, which required six-figure towers and new radios that enable a firefighter in Durango to talk with a sheriff’s deputy in Sterling.

    Even the San Luis Valley’s largest town, Alamosa, relies on a volunteer fire department. So its homeland security office bought radios for volunteer firefighters, law enforcement and emergency medical workers — more than 1,500 of them, one for every 30 residents, at costs that typically ranged from $2,459 to $4,528 each.

    ROLLING VAULT: Aurora police Sgt. Mike Holm leans against the Bear kept at an Aurora police station. The fully armored vehicle, capable of holding up to 16 SWAT officers outfitted with self-contained breathing apparatus, was purchased with Department of Homeland Security funds. The Bear was used in March to rescue two Limon police officers caught in a trailer with a gunman. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

    “Without these grants, I don’t know where the San Luis Valley would be,” said Jeff Babcock, the region’s homeland security coordinator. “I’m very thankful. It’s been put to good use. It’s made our community safer.”

    One hundred sixty-five miles northeast, in Colorado Springs, south-central region coordinator Erin Duran wonders why a city surrounded by military bases qualified for so little assistance by comparison.

    “The fact that we have Fort Carson, the Air Force Academy, Peterson Air Force Base, Schriever Air Force Base, Cheyenne Mountain​ does not count for any additional weight (in homeland security grants),” she said.

    To her, that doesn’t make sense.

    “They’re our neighbors,” she said. “We train with them. We exercise with them. But we think when you’re surrounded by a large concentration of defense facilities, that you would be a target.”

  • Money was “falling from the sky,” said Morrill, whose Gunnison County received a Sno-Cat and a $220,000 hazmat truck.

    “They were just throwing money at people like us who never had any money,” he said. “It was like Christmas came early.”

    Lance Clem, a Department of Public Safety​ spokesman who authored Colorado’s first homeland security strategy, recalled loose guidance from Congress, a long list of eligible things to buy and great confusion about definitions of terms such as “critical infrastructure” to protect. One Colorado town wanted to protect its Walmart as critical infrastructure.

    At first, Clem said, “money was not tied to a strategy. First responders would get grants regardless of the risk.

    “They just saw the shopping list,” he said. “They basically just needed to acquire items on that shopping list. Some of them got things they couldn’t get any other way.”

    Colorado’s method to determine who received grant money eventually evolved into 14 committees, focused on everything from animal health to mass fatalities. A 15-member state committee then ranked projects put forth by those 14 committees.

    As the money has dwindled, so has collective anxiety that another massive attack was imminent.

    “If people could have looked out into the future and saw this is what we are going to face in the next 10 years, people would have been pretty happy,” said University of Denver professor Jonathan Adelman, who teaches foreign policy and homeland security.

    It’s impossible to say, though, whether the mounds of anti-terrorism gear the government purchased made us safer or made us feel safer, Adelman said. After 10 years, it’s time to study “which part did we need and which part is overkill.”

    “In the hysteria — and America had a right to be hysterical after 9/11 — you could sell anything,” he said.

    First responders said some of their equipment falls into the category of “good to have but hope we never need it.” Take, for example, Morgan County’s $44,000 16-foot “mass-fatality” trailer that holds 100 adult body bags and 40 kid-size and 40 infant-size bags. Coroner Don Heer said it’s “loaded, ready to go” in case of a plane crash or an attack on the area’s food-supply operations, which include a slaughterhouse, milk-processing plant and sugar beet refinery.

    If he didn’t have the trailer, Heer said, he would have to rely on an emergency shipment of body bags to Fort Morgan — which he said would take 24 to 48 hours.

    Likewise, it would take a major catastrophe for the Denver area to need all five of its mobile command posts at once.

    Proof that the armored tactical vehicle housed at an Aurora police station has been useful comes in the form of scuffs on its front bumper from “pushing” a house holding a wanted man and nicks in its paint from an explosive that tore open a trailer to free two Limon police officers.

    On the day last March when Limon Officer Jay Sheridan was shot and killed, two other officers were in the trailer with the gunman. The Bear raced east on Interstate 70 at about 75 mph. Once in Limon, a bomb tech attached an explosive to the side of the vehicle, and the SWAT team drove the Bear up to the trailer.

    The explosive blew a hole in the side of the trailer to free the officers. The gunman, it was later determined, had killed himself.

    The tires on the $349,965 “rolling vault” won’t go flat, even if pounded by gunfire, and the vehicle can hold 16 SWAT officers outfitted with self-contained breathing apparatus — or 40 kids should the SWAT team ever have to rescue that many. Ultimately, homeland security grants will pay for four Bears in the metro area, in addition to three that were bought with other money.

    Bomb squads regularly practice defusing explosives, even though real-life bomb situations are rarities.

    STORM TROOPERS: Homeland security funds went to the purchase of two Sno-Cats that were later deployed to Lamar during the 2006 blizzard that stranded Coloradans and killed livestock. (Jennifer Brown, The Denver Post)

    This summer, the Arapahoe County bomb squad — whose truck contains two $20,000 bomb suits and a portable X-ray machine used to reveal the contents of suspicious packages — guided its $186,000 robot up a rocky incline at the Highlands Ranch Law Enforcement Training Center. The robot placed an explosive on a door of an outbuilding used for training and then backed up.

    “Fire in the hole!” shouted a deputy before the blast echoed off the hills.

    The robot can retrieve a bomb and put it inside the squad’s $260,000 “total containment vessel,” a rotund trailer that can withstand the force of huge explosions.

    One day in 2004, Pueblo bought two bomb robots for $142,000, anticipating that the police and sheriff’s departments would each have a bomb squad. Seven years later, Pueblo has one bomb squad — and its two robots are stored a few feet apart in a city building.

    Deputy Chief Andrew McLachlan, the bomb squad commander, said his team covers 35,000 square miles and deals with everything from pipe bombs to grandpa’s dynamite in the barn. He has no plan to sell the second robot.

    “We want both in case we ever roll two teams at one time,” he said, adding, “I want a bigger robot.”

    And Colorado law officers are well supplied with duffel bags, thanks to the federal 9/11 money.

    Calls about “white powder” in the wake of the national anthrax attacks pushed some regions to outfit every officer with a bag containing a gas mask, hazmat suit, gloves and decontamination spray or wipes. Colorado ordered more than $1 million worth of bags.

    The state also bought duct tape — 17 miles of it — to wrap the bottom of pant legs and shirt sleeves.

    But in the south-central region, “we did not do duffel bags,” Duran said. “We did buy masks and suits for law enforcement” and let the officers decide where to stow them.

    The Department of Public Safety spent $259,331 on 1,200 gas masks that expired before they were opened. The masks were not replaced. The department also bought 600 ballistic helmets, one for each state trooper.

    One “gray area” is whether grant money should fund projects for private businesses and nongovernmental agencies, said Kellar, the north-central region coordinator.

    Coors Field got $174,000 for concrete bollards outside the stadium. Nearly $270,000 in grant funds went to hospital radiation detectors that go off if someone contaminated with nuclear or biological chemicals walks into the emergency room.

    “Is it a good thing to do? At the end of the day, if the public sector loses five emergency rooms, we are in a world of hurt,” Kellar said.

    Hospitals also received at least $629,000 in decontamination tents and other supplies.

    Bonfils Blood Center, which has one of the largest blood supplies in the country, received $72,000 for a security fence around the Lowry blood bank and more than $200,000 for a new set of refrigerators and security to protect blood from an attack.

    Grant money also bought a $165,000 mobile kitchen for the Salvation Army​.

    After equipment, training has been the biggest consumer of homeland security dollars. Denver, for example, spent more than $3 million to reimburse agencies for overtime and replacement personnel while employees trained. It sent 25 officers to Israel — at a cost of $108,000 — to meet anti-terrorism experts there.

    First responders descended on Vail for a bomb exercise, which coincided with the demolition of a local hotel.

    Nationally, the government has spent more than $400 billion on homeland security programs since 2003. Yet citizens have no way of knowing how much better prepared the country is to handle an attack.

    Federal authorities list 37 capabilities to counter 15 types of terrorist attacks and natural disasters, but states are not required to measure progress toward achieving those capabilities.

    Colorado asks its nine “all-hazard” regions to report their progress. But it relies on their self-assessments and, citing security concerns, will not divulge how much progress any region has made on any disaster-fighting capability.

    Turner, the FEMA program analyst, said there is abundant anecdotal evidence of progress. When a tornado flattened Joplin, Mo., for example, the state declined an offer for mobile communications vehicles. “The state didn’t need us,” Turner said. “They were able to do it themselves.”

    But can the federal government say in any measurable way how much better cities and states are prepared after spending $400 billion?

    “There is no black-and-white answer to that,” Turner said.

    Ten years later, the river of homeland security money to Colorado is slowing, with emergency managers predicting it will soon run dry.

    This year, in the face of mounting debts, Congress tightened the spigot. In Colorado, regional coordinators were notified recently of a 50 percent cut in money available for the coming year.

    In the San Luis Valley, Babcock fears the end of his full-time job as a homeland security coordinator.

    “Beyond the 2011 grants, I don’t know,” he said. “A lot of the rural regions are in the same boat. The money is getting awfully tight.”