The search-and-rescue trailer housed at Colchester Technical Rescue hasn't seen much action since it was purchased with federal homeland security dollars two years ago. Most days, it sits parked in a three-bay garage at the town ambulance service, packed with gear, waiting for a crisis.
Two weeks ago, the crisis arrived in the form of Tropical Storm Irene. The equipment trailer (pictured here traversing ravaged Route 4 in Mendon), and the highly-trained rescuers that travel with it, were deployed to help Vermont's devastated small towns.
Federal homeland security spending skyrocketed after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and it's been a contentious topic ever since — particularly in rural states such as Vermont thought to be at low risk of a terrorist attack. Vermont has received more than $95 million in federal homeland security funds since 2001, according to state figures.
Over the years, critics have complained that the expensive equipment purchased with this money is virtually unused. But some Vermont emergency first responders say it played a crucial role in the response to Tropical Storm Irene.
The epic floods spawned by Irene marked the first time the state's multi-jurisdictional Vermont Urban Search and Rescue Task Force was activated, says Colchester Technical Rescue chief Michael Cannon (pictured), who co-heads the statewide task force. The 11-town team was deployed to Rutland on August 29, and from there was tasked with reaching hard-hit towns including Rochester and Pittsfield to establish communications and assess the damage to people and property.
For five straight days, the 38-foot trailer served as a mobile command post — with radios, laptops, topographical maps and a "repeater" that boosts radio range by five to 10 miles. Officials from the Search and Rescue Task Force, the Vermont State Police and U.S. Forest Service all crammed into the small work station to co-coordinate relief efforts, while personnel on ATVs rode into hard-hit towns, Cannon says.
The trailer is equipped with a diesel generator, inflatable shelters, ropes, harnesses, shovels, rakes and other gear — all purchased with homeland security dollars post-9/11. Colchester Technical Rescue regularly uses its zodiac boats and dive equipment — purchased with town funds — during rescues at swimming holes, Cannon says. But this was the first time the big equipment trailer was deployed in a statewide emergency.
"We've got tons of equipment," says Cannon, slugging a Dunkin' Donuts coffee during an interview last week. "We sort of joked a little bit... that this big trailer will never go down the road with lights and sirens on. That thing went down the road with lights and sirens for five days for this emergency. We used a lot of equipment that was on the trailer."
Last Thursday, the Colchester search-and-rescue trailer was deployed to Rochester to assist the state medical examiner in searching for human remains from a washed-out cemetery (pictured). The simple gear used in that effort — pry bars to move caskets, chainsaws to clear debris — was also purchased with homeland security dollars.
The Burlington Fire Department also deployed its search and rescue team, and its equipment trailer, for the first time in response to the flooding disaster. Assistant Fire Marshal Barry Simays (pictured) says a dozen Burlington firefighters, trained with homeland security funds as part of the statewide search and rescue team, were dispatched to assist in reaching hard-hit communities. The BFD technical rescue trailer was also deployed to central Vermont, stocked with helmets, ropes and airpacks.
Burlington's technical rescue gear didn't end up getting used, because its primary purpose is trench rescue and building-collapse rescue, and that wasn't needed in this case. But Simays says the personnel Burlington sent down were critical because several other towns were so hard-hit, they couldn't afford to send emergency workers who serve on the statewide search-and-rescue team.
Other gear purchased with federal grant funds gets far more regular use, Simays says, including a four-gas meter (cost around $1500) that detects carbon monoxide and other hazardous gases in dwellings, and a thermal imaging camera (cost around $15,000) that uses infrared technology to let firefighters see people in a burning building, as well as locate the source of a fire. Burlington's haz-mat trailer has been put into use as well — not for a bio-terror attack, but to decontaminate firefighters who responded to a chemical fire at a University of Vermont lab.
"This saves firefighters' lives, and others' lives," Simays says.
Though Cannon didn't know the exact price paid for Colchester's trailer and equipment inside, records published in 2010 by the Center for Investigative Reporting show Colchester Technical Rescue received $143,508 in federal homeland security funds between 2003 and today. Purchases made from that largess include $36,964 for a "prime mover" truck used to tow the trailer, and $29,078 for an underwater camera and related accessories. Combined, Colchester police, fire and rescue services have hauled in more than $459,000 in federal homeland security money since 2003, according to CIR's analysis.
In 2004, Colchester became an unlikely poster child for wasteful homeland security spending when a critical New Yorker article singled out the town for using $58,000 in federal anti-terrorism funds to purchase a search-and-rescue vehicle capable of boring through concrete, in the case of a building collapse. The highest building in Colchester, the article noted, was only four stories tall. "Perhaps not surprisingly," the author wrote, "some communities have had trouble coming up with credible uses for the windfalls they’ve received."
Colchester officials quickly clarified at the time that the "vehicle" in question was actually a glorified chainsaw — a boring device with a camera on the end that's used to search for people trapped inside a building. And the actual cost was around $18,000 — not $58,000.
But like other states, Vermont has seen its share of mismanagement of federal homeland security funds since September 11, 2001. A series of audits by Auditor Tom Salmon and his predecessor, Randy Brock, turned up problems with the way funds were applied for and received.
As recounted in CIR's investigation, a private association of hospitals and health systems tasked with processing bio-terrorism grants told auditors that they were operating "blindly" in terms of federal guidelines governing how money should be handled. Hospital association staff said they weren't aware what emergency preparedness supplies they already had on hand.
CIR also noted problems with major equipment purchases. A consulting contract worth $76,000 was not bid out competitively and was awarded to a former employee of the aforementioned hospital association. More than $43,000 was spent on emergency radios with no record of competitive bidding. Ditto with $67,000 worth of pharmaceuticals purchased for first responders in the event of an infectious disease outbreak. And the company Fisher Scientific International was paid $191,000 to supply Vermont gloves, masks and goggles without having to bid on its contract.
Nonetheless, Burlington Fire Chief Seth Lasker says that, overall, Vermont's use of federal anti-terrorism money has been "relatively prudent" rather than "over the top."
"There's definitely voids being filled," Lasker said. "It's been very good for departments that have received this money and a lot of these programs have served a lot of Vermonters in a positive way."