When homemade bombs ripped through the crowd at the Boston Marathon two weeks ago, Oklahomans instinctively knew how the city felt.
Since the Murrah building bombing and the Sept. 11 attacks, state officials have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to prepare for another strike on Oklahoma soil.
Over the last 14 years, the federal government has awarded $35 billion in Homeland Security grants to help states fortify against the next attack. More than $200 million has gone to Oklahoma to fund everything from bomb disposal robots and hazardous materials response units to metal detectors at courthouses and training for first responders -- and many surveillance cameras.
The linchpin of the state's preparedness is the Regional Response System. Instead of taking the number of grant recipients and dividing it by the total amount of money, which some states did, the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security used $35 million to build a 113-piece statewide network of mobile hospitals, search-and-rescue units, hazmat teams, agriculture disinfection labs and banks of decontamination showers.
"The vision was to give everybody in the state of Oklahoma, no matter how remote their area was, access to the same level of equipment and expertise that the metro areas have," said Johnny Vaughn, who coordinates the Regional Response System for the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security.
What We Found
The 9 Investigates team found that although the Homeland Security largesse has made the state better-prepared for a terrorist attack, natural disaster or environmental emergency, some of the equipment it purchased is seldom-used, and all of it will have to be replaced at a significant cost to the state or communities that host it.
"We bought and built this system to deal with terrorist attacks," said state Homeland Security Advisor Kim Carter. But, he noted, "What's the better chance of an Oklahoman being affected by: a terrorist attack, or a tornado, or an ice storm, or a fire, or an explosion in a plant like happened in West, Texas."
Not having to use Muskogee's half-million-dollar mass-casualty response trailer for its intended purpose is a good thing, said Laurel Havens, an education coordinator and regional representative for Muskogee County EMS. Deploying the mobile hospital, which can treat 300 critical patients at a time, would mean a large number of Oklahomans have been hurt or killed.
Norman has an identical unit. Thirty-one cities and towns around the state have smaller units.
The last time the Muskogee trailer was used was during the Creek County wildfires in 2012.
"Preparedness is not glamorous, but it is necessary. … You have to have these things available when something does happen so you can provide that resource to patients, especially (in) the rural areas," Havens explained. "If we never use it, it was a success," he said, but added: "A lot of people don't look at it like that."
Assistant Chief Reese Morrison, who oversees the Midwest City Fire Department's chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosives (CBRNE) unit, said his team typically boards the 38-foot, $450,000 trailer at least weekly to respond to tanker spills, unidentified-substance calls and potentially dangerous radiation sources.
"This truck is as important as any truck we've got on the fire service," he said.
After examining hundreds of pages of documents on the Regional Response System, Interoperable Communications radio network, first-responder training and other items and services the state purchased with Homeland Security money, the 9 Investigates team found nothing questionable.
Nationally, however, Homeland Security grants have come under criticism from U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and others in Congress for indiscriminate spending on low-priority projects.
In Oklahoma, millions of dollars went to small towns and school districts, raising the question of whether these were the same types of low-priority projects that Coburn and others have criticized.
Homeland Security Advisor Kim Carter, who was appointed two years ago by Gov. Mary Fallin, noted that federal rules required 80 percent of funds to go to local recipients, and he took issue with questioning their needs.
"Those are the critical infrastructure of their towns," he said, "and it's very important to them that their city halls or their courthouses or their municipal water systems – those types of things – are protected."
Carnegie Mayor James Powers has heard the question before, and he has a ready response. Rural Oklahomans are taxpayers, too, he said, and their security concerns are just as important as those of urban residents.
A $50,000 grant allowed the 1,700-person Caddo County town to buy cameras for its six-cell jail, put fences around the water-treatment plant, and shore up the public-access window at its emergency-call center.
"During a severe situation, this is a very important facility. This is where all communication comes through for the town," he said of the 911 center, as a large monitor showed activity in the jail cells and a dispatcher answered calls.
Across the state in Coweta, Assistant Police Chief Lt. Donnie Krumsiek wrote a similar grant, which covered fencing around the water tower, and cameras and bullet-resistant glass in the public-safety complex.
"This allows us to do things we wouldn't have been able to do," he said.
Making Us Safer
No amount of money can make a community entirely safe, as events in Boston demonstrated. However, Carter said, the Regional Response System would have been on site beforehand and ready to help the wounded had the Boston attacks occurred here.
"Minutes count when you're bleeding very profusely at a scene like that," he said. "We are much better prepared than we were, say, 10 or 15 years ago," he said.
Regional Response Coordinator Johnny Vaughn echoed this sentiment. "We are more ready to respond," he said, adding, "There's not a doubt in my mind."