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Higgins, local safety leaders sound alarm on region's exclusion from Urban Area Security Initiative program

by jmaloni

Submitted

Fri, Mar 21st 2014 09:20 am

Congressman Brian Higgins joined Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, City of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, City of Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, Niagara County Sheriff James Voutour and public safety leaders serving the Buffalo, Erie and Niagara regions in calling for Western New York to be reinstated as eligible for federal Homeland Security funding through the Urban Area Security Initiative program. 

Higgins and local leaders and first responders are especially concerned due to a recent Western New York mention in the latest edition of Inspire, an English language al-Qaeda magazine.

Higgins wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson expressing his concern. In his letter, Higgins wrote, in part, "Given the roster of Tier II cities for whom funding has been restored, it is difficult to understand why the Buffalo-Erie-Niagara (BEN) area continues to be ranked lower and left off this list."

Higgins went on to note the region's proximity to the northern border, the Niagara Power Project, the Great Lakes, and a large extended population. The congressman also mentioned the area's history with al-Qaeda influence with the Lackawanna Six.

Poloncarz added, "It's inconceivable and inexcusable that the Buffalo Niagara region was once again left off the list of communities receiving UASI funding. Our area sits on an international border, is the home to one of the world's most traveled to tourist attractions, and hosts many sporting events and other festivals annually that are considered at-risk targets for potential terrorism. While we have a dedicated response team, UASI funding provides the training and support to keep our team ready to respond or assist wherever needed."

"Local law enforcement officers and first responders in Buffalo are working day and night to be prepared, and we must do everything we can to support them - plain and simple," Brown said, noting the Buffalo-Niagara region includes four international border crossings and is the busiest passenger crossing along the northern border with Canada. "This federal security funding makes a dramatic difference. We must do everything we can to make sure the Department of Homeland Security recognizes Buffalo as an urban area that greatly deserves the additional resources and enhanced ability to protect our citizens, visitors and local assets by further arming our emergency responders with the best tools, the best techniques and the best technologies to make Buffalo an even safer city."

Dyster added, "This funding source has been vitally important in keeping eyes and ears on the street through support of increased patrols in sensitive areas like downtown Niagara Falls, where millions of visitors from around the world pass every year. Moreover, it has enabled procurement of both equipment and training to help better prepare us to address our worst nightmare: incidents involving use of weapons of mass destruction. Not only because we are on an international border, but because of the large number of visitors whose security we are responsible to protect during their stays here every tourist season, any cuts in UASI funding are a matter of grave concern to us here in Niagara Falls. I commend Congressman Higgins for once again going to bat for us to ensure that this vital weapon in the war on terror is not lost to local law enforcement."

In fiscal year 2010, 64 regions, including Buffalo-Erie-Niagara, were eligible for the UASI program. The Buffalo region received $5,544,750 in UASI funding. From FY03-FY11 the Buffalo region received more than $53 million through the program. 

In 2012, the UASI program was cut to 31 eligible cities and, in 2013, eligibility was reduced further to 25 cities. The FY2014 UASI program received a 5.1 percent increase over the FY13 level - to $578 million - which allowed the number of cities included in the program to be expanded from 25 to 39. Yet, Western New York was again left off the list of eligible communities. Funding eligibility is based on a classified risk-assessment, which is based on threat, vulnerability and consequence.

Erie County Department of Emergency Services Commissioner Dan Neaverth Jr. said, "The collaborative efforts of the Buffalo, Erie and Niagara Urban Area Security Initiative have impacted, in a positive way, the lives of every person living or visiting Western New York. Obviously lost in the UASI funding discussion are best practices and success stories. Training and equipping first response agencies whom, on numerous occasions, have also traveled downstate following natural and manmade incidents is imperative. Disappointed ... that's about all I can say suitable for print."

UASI enhances the capacity to respond to all-hazard events. The most tragic and illustrative of the importance of this collaborative region-wide partnership was the crash of Flight 3407. The Buffalo Erie Niagara UASI incident management team also effectively responded to the 2009 Gowanda floods, 2006 October storm, and assisted with response to Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene.

In his letter, Higgins noted that, without UASI funding, the BEN region faces threats to the capability gains it made while included in the program; hazardous material response equipment is in need of updating; and plans to upgrade an out-of-date 911 system have been put on hold. UASI funding is also credited with Buffalo being ranked second in public health emergency preparedness by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010. 

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