Robot named Sheila part of Wilmington terror defense
Dec 29, 2012 (Star-News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The Wilmington Police Department acquired a robot in 2010 armed with a mechanical claw so strong it could drag a wounded officer out of harm's way during a firefight.
The robot, nicknamed "Sheila," has investigated suspicious packages and was deployed in stand-off situations where armed assailants barricaded themselves inside. The same machine was featured in the "The Hurt Locker," a movie about an Army bomb squad dismantling improvised explosives in Iraq.
Sheila, purchased with a $177,000 federal grant, is emblematic of the kind of high-tech equipment that locals around the nation have bought thanks to lavishly funded homeland security programs launched in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Since its inception in 2003, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has poured billions of dollars into local governments to finance a national bulwark against terrorism. But now critics question the logic behind buying local law enforcement things like robots, armored vehicles, unmanned aerial drones and night-vision goggles.
The push for curtailing such spending is based on the perception that these devices sit unused awaiting far-fetched scenarios.
"A lot of state and local governments are getting things that are really unnecessary for the realistic security threat that they face," said Daniel Masters, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington whose teaching areas include global terrorism and international security.
Earlier this month, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn released a scathing report about what he called "wasteful and misguided spending" by one of the country's largest security programs, which has doled out $7 billion to cities large and small under the auspices of terror prevention.
The report questions whether the program, the Urban Area Security Initiative, has made the country safer, and documents show some jurisdictions conjured up outlandish scenarios to justify needing the money. For example, the program paid attendance to a summit held at an island resort and spa on the west coast, where the marquee event showed first responders how to beat back a zombie apocalypse.
"We must be honest with the American people that we cannot make every community around the country invulnerable to terrorist attacks by writing large checks from Washington, D.C.," Coburn wrote in the report. "Not only is this an unrealistic goal, but is also undermines the very purpose of our efforts."
Southeastern North Carolina has benefited from the federal Port Security Grant Program, a sister program to the Urban Area Security Initiative, because of its proximity to the Port of Wilmington. Under the program, money flowed to cities and counties even if the projects were not directly tied to securing the port.
Some of the purchases cited as abuses by Coburn mirror ones made in Southeastern North Carolina. For example, his report criticized how a number of jurisdictions bought BearCat armored vehicles, including a town in rural New Hampshire that cited a need to protect its annual pumpkin festival. Wilmington bought a $270,510 BearCat armored personnel carrier for the SWAT Team last year. It also took issue with how Columbus, Ohio secured funding for an underwater robot. New Hanover County got a $109,770 remote controlled submersible robot equipped with a video camera, sonar GPS and mechanical claw.
Not everybody agrees with the opinion that such purchases are wasteful.
Sgt. Jerry Brewer, a spokesman for the sheriff's office, said the underwater robot is a safety measure for the dive team.
"We can put this robot in the water means we don't have to put a human in the water," he said. "That in itself is huge."
Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the homeland security department, called the spending "investments in our first responders on the frontline," and said the department sees "the value of these grants time and again."
Local agencies receive funding through a variety of state and federal programs. Here the focus is solely on what has been bought with federal homeland security money. A few examples:
-- The Wilmington Police Department spent $22,948 on a bomb suit to protect a bomb technician against a blast. It also spent $214,316 on a "Bomb Robot Support Truck."
-- The New Hanover County Sheriff's Office got $270,000 to outfit its helicopter with night vision and a digital downlink system, the latter to provide "an immediate video feed to personnel on the ground as well as to a centralized command center," according to the project description. That money was later transferred to the Wilmington Police Department, which used it to upgrade the city's helicopter after the sheriff's office dissolved its helicopter program.
-- A marine-related grant project launched jointly by the New Hanover and Brunswick County sheriff's offices and the Wilmington Police Department spent $585,351 for two 25-foot boats, a trailer, life jackets, among other various equipment.
-- The Wilmington Fire Department got $401,300 under the port security program to buy a 6,000 gallon-per-minute pump, foam application nozzles and other related equipment to help extinguish a fire should one break out on an above-ground fuel tank.
-- Wrightsville Beach, also under the port security program, spent $73,831 to subsidize the purchase of two high-speed camera systems known as automatic license plate readers, which snap photographs of tags when cars pass by and alerts officers when one belongs to a wanted criminal or someone on the terrorism watch list.
--Brunswick County spent $324,162 on a "Mass Evacuation -- Mass Casualty Bus,', $27,756.16 retrofitting the Emergency Operations Center with hurricane storm shutters, and $233,250 to equip the Brunswick County Sheriff's Office's helicopter with an infrared camera system. The latter was funded by the port security program.
When President George W. Bush created the homeland security department in 2003, state and local government placed added emphasis on acquiring grants, leading many agencies to hire trained grant writers to improve their odds. Masters said some areas incentivize their writers by tying their salary to the grant. And the homeland security department was so flush with cash, critics say, that the criteria for evaluating grant requests dropped markedly.
Now, states and localities use the grants as a way to fill widening gaps in their budgets and expand their capabilities.
"Before the recession hit, this was all add-on money," Masters said. "Now this becomes like plugging holes in the dam."
Policymakers believe a retrenchment is inevitable given the nation's fiscal realities. The port security program already shrank, with available funding plunging from $235 million in 2011 to $97.5 million this year. That outlook raises considerable concern among emergency responders, many of whom came to rely on the federal government for what they say is much-needed support.
"Grants have just been immense tools for us to get what we need," said Oak Island Fire Chief Christopher Anselmo. "Extremely crucial."
Defenders of the grant programs say they strengthen public safety and disaster preparedness. And many purchases involve training and include smaller, more practical items, such as axes for firefighters.
"It's really, really critical to help us be as efficient as possible," said New Hanover County Fire Chief Donnie Hall, whose department updated equipment, launched health and wellness initiatives, replaced air packs and bought better training technology with the help of federal money.
State Rep. Ric Killian, a Republican from Mecklenburg County who co-chairs the N.C. General Assembly's committee on Homeland Security, Military and Veterans Affairs, said Coburn's report made valid points. He cited the hobbled federal response to Hurricane Katrina to argue that homeland security can be better addressed at the state level, but said the federal government's long-running lead in that area has caused many states to focus resources elsewhere.
"Our homeland security efforts are simply a reflection of the federal money we receive," he said. "We need to establish where the threat is and specific plans to meet that threat, be it a nuclear disaster, water contamination disaster, earthquake or flood."
Despite deficit reduction fights between Congress and President Obama, some foresee homeland security absorbing a softer hit than other domestic programs.
Masters said lawmakers face political risks when broaching the issue.
"You don't want to the be the person responsible for having negotiated a reduction in that and then a terrorist attack take place," he said. "You don't want to appear soft on terrorism."
Brian Freskos: 343-2327
On Twitter: @ BrianFreskos
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