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Left behind: Rural emergency agencies concerned about Homeland grant share

LAKOTA, N.D. -- Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke has a mobile Incident Command Response Unit, and he will travel. The trouble is there may come a time when the heavy-duty mobile unit might not make it to the scene.

Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke
Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke is lobbying to change the way federal Homeland Security funds are distributed to North Dakota cities and counties. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

LAKOTA, N.D. -- Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke has a mobile Incident Command Response Unit, and he will travel. The trouble is there may come a time when the heavy-duty mobile unit might not make it to the scene.

That's why he was chagrinned recently when he learned that a federal Homeland Security grant application for a new $46,000 three-quarter-ton pickup to pull the mobile unit was rejected by the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.

The Nelson County Sheriff's Department uses an undersized half-ton vehicle to pull the ICRU, which is available for use by any law enforcement or emergency agency in the 16-county northeast region.

DES recently awarded more than $3 million in grants, which come from the federal Department of Homeland Security.

"Almost all of that money went to the state's four biggest cities," Janke said. "My main concern is that rural counties are not getting their fair share of this federal funding."


Three phases

Debbie LaCombe, Homeland Security grant section chief with DES, said the money was designated for Phase 1 of its three-phase statewide Comprehensive Regional Response Program. Phase 1 of the program is designated for Bomb Squads, SWAT and HAZCHEM (hazardous chemical) units, she said.

"Most of Phase I money went to the four anchor cities or their counties because that's where most of the Bomb Squad, SWAT and Hazmat teams are located," she said.

The Phase I program covered 2008 and 2009.

Phase II, which concentrates on search and rescue, is scheduled this year and perhaps in 2011.

Phase III, which covers all hazards, will begin after Phase II is completed, probably 2011 or 2012.

"The last two years, we concentrated on Phase I," LaCombe said. "Unfortunately for places like Nelson County, most of the bomb squads, SWAT and Hazmat teams are headquartered in larger cities. Nelson County's request would fit better in Phase III."

Janke said the Jamestown Police Department has been awarded about $200,000 for an Incident Command Response Unit, including $101,000 in the latest round.


But LaCombe said the Jamestown application was for a hazardous materials response-specific vehicle. It's part of a several-year process of adding Quick Response Assessment Teams designated for hazardous materials, including technician-level training, to smaller cities around the state, including Devils Lake, Williston, Dickinson and Jamestown.

Janke said the guidelines and system of awarding the grants should be changed.

The $46,000 truck request from Nelson County was ranked first in priority among all projects in northeastern North Dakota. And the application passed the first review.

It was rejected in a review later in the process.

Janke appealed to the North Dakota Legislature's interim Public Safety and Transportation Committee, which met in January.

"I think there's been a lot of confusion in these phases," said Rep. Don Vigesaa, R-Cooperstown, a member of the committee. "They never know when they file the application if they'll fit the criteria. They think they're doing it right, but they find out later that they don't. I'd like to see some of the confusion cleared up."

After discussing the issue with sheriffs, police chiefs and emergency service officials throughout the northeast region, Janke offered six recommendations they believe could make the system better and help to deliver more Homeland Security funds to rural agencies:

- Reduce the subjectivity of awarding grants by greater specification of parameters in the guidelines.


- Reject any application at the earliest level if it is incomplete or fails to meet the criteria for that DES program or program phase (to reduce time and effort spent on an application that ultimately will be rejected anyway).

- Foster better communications between regional coordinators, advisory committees and policy network committees.

- Committees should have equal representation, such as representatives from county government and small cities, rather than only from the four largest cities. Perhaps appointees should be appointed by the governor.

- Reserve a portion of the allocated money, perhaps 10 to 15 percent, for smaller-scale projects or rural entities.

- Require memorandums of understanding, or mutual aid agreements between agencies, both with consequences if not adhered to.

LaComb said the DES Homeland Security section is reviewing the recommendations as it begins to draft guidelines for the 2010 round of grant funding.

"There will be some changes, but we don't know what they will be yet," she said.

Former FEMA trailer


The Nelson County Sheriff's Department bought the trailer, a former FEMA unit, in 2006. Over the past three years, it has spent about $30,000 in remodeling and equipment.

Some of that money has come from DES and the Homeland Security funding. But the guidelines changed in 2008.

The ICRU features:

- A 7,000-watt generator to supply power to the entire unit, anywhere in the countryside.

- Portable radios.

- Communications room, with radios connected to Emergency 911 centers throughout the region.

- Medical supplies.

- Mass-casualty incident equipment and supplies.


"It can be deployed anywhere," Janke said. "We can pull it up to Pembina County, to Grand Forks County. We're basically bringing the equipment to you, and now you're operating out of this. This is your command center. We made a brochure and are sending it throughout the 16-county region. All it takes is a phone call. We bring it to you and we set it up, and it's yours until the incident is ended, if that takes a day or a week."

That is, as long as the old half-ton pickup will make it there.

The ICRU has been deployed for several incidents and events over the past couple of years, including:

- Standby for the 2009 Fargo-Moorhead flood.

- Standby to Mayville, N.D., where some flood refugees from the Fargo-Moorhead flood were being evacuated to Mayville State University.

- Two missing person search-and-rescue missions in Nelson County.

- As an emergency unit at the annual Stump Lake, N.D., Threshing Bee.

Janke said he really realized the need in August 2007, when a tornado devastated the city of Northwood, N.D.


"When I pulled up, there were 15 ambulances and firetrucks lined up. They were all rural volunteer units," he said. "They were ready to go into town and start their search-and-rescue operation, but you need a place to gather. It was all in the process, but it was scattered, it wasn't coordinated. You need a common ground and go from there. And that's what we need in rural North Dakota.

"You need a place to group, to get all your ducks in a row, then deploy your resources from there. You can't have people working out of the fire engines, out of the ambulances, the patrol car. You need a gathering place to gather information and to disseminate information."

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to kbonham@gfherald.com .

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