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Consumer Reports

Small cities finding ‘dual purposes’ for federal counterterrorism aid | (KRT) FLAGSTAFF, Arizona --New Yorkers worry about suicide bombers and Washingtonians worry about dirty bombs. People in Flagstaff worry about wildfires and blizzards.

There isn't much anxiety about terrorism in Flagstaff, a mountain town of 53,000 where even City Hall doesn't have a metal detector.

"Terrorism is not our number one threat," said Jim Driscoll, emergency services coordinator for Flagstaff's Coconino County. "Fires are." The county has never had a terrorist, but the state lost 629,876 acres to wildfires last year.

So when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raises the national terrorist threat level from yellow to orange, which calls for 24-hour security at possible targets, Driscoll doesn't do it.

"Is it wise for us to spend the time and money on this when the likelihood of an attack is very, very low?" Driscoll asked. "We decided no."

With 80 officers to cover a county roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, he said, "We don't have the financial capability or the manpower to maintain orange for very long."

That reality, widely shared all over America, is prompting some Washington bureaucrats to rethink their formulas for fighting terrorism at home. The first federal counterterrorism grants were distributed nationwide more or less on a per capita basis, but Ridge wants most of the $20 billion in federal homeland security aid next year to go to locales that are more likely targets than Flagstaff.

That would mean lots more money for big cities like Washington, New York and Los Angeles. "If terrorists wanted to cause the most damage and affect the most people, that's where they would go," said Tom Goodman, spokesman for the National Association of Counties in Washington.

Such a shift, over the inevitable resistance of many senators and representatives, would mean less aid for places such as Flagstaff, which is happy to accept federal help even if it isn't too worried about a visit from al-Qaida.

Flagstaff got $300,000 to buy chemical gas detection equipment and protective gear such as gas masks and bodysuits. The gear could come in handy in the event of radioactive or hazardous material spills from the trucks that use nearby Interstate 40 or the 88 trains that roll through town daily.

Another $600,000 is on the way for more protective gear and drills. Mayor Joe Donaldson said the drills are needed to discover gaps in preparedness and work out kinks in communication. A mock Sarin nerve gas attack in March showed that the city's lone hospital, Flagstaff Medical Center, could handle only 30 casualties. Just as more protective gear could also be used to cope with hazardous material spills, so an upgraded hospital would benefit Flagstaff.

Thus far, Homeland Security has doled out $4.4 billion in aid, much of it to 3,066 counties and 18,000 municipalities nationwide. Much of it, said Goodman, "does have that dual purpose. And that's a good thing. It is a wise use of federal money, I think."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services