Dec 12, 2013
Homeland Security Pays Dividends for Alaska
Posted on Oct 31, 2008
“We’re a small city, so we’re not a large target, hopefully,” a public works director told the Anchorage Daily News in 2005 for a story headlined “Homeland security has been good to Mat-Su.” “The only thing we’ve experienced is minor vandalism on the (water storage) tanks.”
The Wasilla Police Department had only eight officers when it was created in 1993, not long before Palin became mayor, and it remains small today with about two dozen officers in the 13-square-mile city. The man Mayor Palin appointed to be the city’s police chief, Charlie Fannon, later became a consultant and grant writer for Wasilla, helping to oversee its major homeland security purchases, including the tower.
The extra funds Wasilla received for raising the tower are part of a boon of federal money awarded to the city aside from the grants already acquired from the Department of Homeland Security.
City budget documents show that Wasilla had a total operating budget in 2008 of $13.7 million. But it received for its small police department $986,643 in federal aid for radio repeaters and to outfit its patrol cars with wireless mobile computers, which connect to police headquarters and an emergency dispatch center.
The city didn’t expect to use any of its own money for those projects.
“There are so many applications, I think we’re only limited by our creativity in the areas of homeland security, emergency response, EMS and fire,” Fannon, the grants consultant, told the Daily News in 2005.
Wasilla is by no means the only rural, lightly populated Alaska town benefiting from the post-9/11 surge in federal largess. The city of Whittier, 60 miles southeast of Anchorage, has a population of only about 175 people, but it boasts of attracting tourists and various cruise lines. It spent $28,400 in federal grants to purchase two SABRE 3000 anthrax detectors, $24,000 on an “incident command vehicle” and $15,000 for two Kawasaki 4x4 ATVs with winches, state records show.
There’s never been a reported case of anthrax infection in Alaska history, according to the state’s Department of Health and Social Services.
The western Alaska port city of Bethel, with fewer than 6,000 people, spent $6,287 to buy a “surveillance shotgun listening device,” $44,000 on seven ATVs and $22,000 for video surveillance of its water treatment plant.
The fishing village of Dillingham in southwestern Alaska, which contains about 2,500 people, spent $2,050 on an “impact-resistant door” and $202,000 on a wireless surveillance system that blanketed its downtown and port areas with 80 cameras. The cameras so irked some local residents leery of government intrusion that the longtime mayor who pursued the devices, Chris Napoli, resigned under persistent criticism in 2006.
The borough that surrounds Wasilla, Matanuska-Susitna, also benefited from federal funds. It has more governmental responsibility than Wasilla, overseeing schools and fire emergencies, for example. It is an area of south-central Alaska about the size of West Virginia and has roughly 80,000 people.
According to an examination of state spending records, of the nearly $3 million it received in Homeland Security grants since 2003, the borough spent $66,200 to install surveillance cameras and a key-card entry system at two fire stations in Wasilla, $25,000 on infrared cameras, $14,277 on four laptops and $2,193 on 15 bullhorns. Borough officials also acquired a $410,000 mobile command communications vehicle specially outfitted with a four-wheel-drive chassis to accommodate Alaska’s rugged terrain, and a conference room with a projector screen and an incinerator toilet that operates without water.
An additional $60,000 in grant funds was needed to outfit the new truck with interoperable radios that could reach the state’s emergency communications system, and $70,769 more was spent installing a satellite system for Internet access and video conferences.
Dennis Brodigan, the borough’s emergency services director, said in an interview with CIR that the fire department had trouble figuring out where to store the new command center, so now it’s kept in a commercial building next door to a Wasilla firehouse. At least $9,000 in grant funds has covered leasing expenses so far, records show.
The Mat-Su Borough isn’t without the threat of natural disasters. An area of the borough southwest of Wasilla known as Big Lake sustained one of the state’s most destructive wildfires in 1996, a blaze that left hundreds of people without homes. In the late summer of 2006, major flooding downed bridges and washed out roads further north. The region is also vulnerable to seismic activity.
Brodigan said the truck would enable first responders to maintain connections with central command from distant corners of the region during emergencies.
“We get high winds about four times a year on the average,” Brodigan said. “And when I say high winds I mean 80 and 100 miles an hour, and they don’t come in and leave a few hours later. They stay for days. So everything we’ve bought so far will serve us not only for larger disasters but actually day in and day out.”
The idea of buying the vehicle came in part from Palin’s former police chief, Fannon, and was supposed to serve as an extension to a new emergency dispatch center that Wasilla finished building in 2004, considered a major achievement of Palin’s mayoral term along with the construction of a sports complex.
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