Protecting the homeland - March 1, 2004

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Since the Department of Homeland Security has come on the scene, grants aimed at safeguarding agriculture are increasing. Funds are being used to purchase equipment, hire new staff and develop new programs, and provide training to individuals who may be involved in responding to an emergency. In many cases, Homeland Security provides funding to the Department of Agriculture, which then funnels it to the states.

Because of money from the DHS, for example, several states have purchased equipment and added staff positions so that animal health agencies can work toward building geographic information system maps (see article.). These maps will help track agricultural assets and allow emergency officials to respond more quickly and effectively to an agroterrorism event.

In Michigan, a recent $64,000 grant allowed the Michigan Department of Agriculture to purchase two mobile emergency supply units and equip many field veterinarians and veterinary technicians with personal emergency response kits. These contained biosecurity items and safety gear, such as coveralls and respirators.

In the past year, Wisconsin used a $32,000 grant to purchase emergency response trailers as well as other equipment, including protective gear, portable pressure washers, and digital cameras. Those cameras will allow individuals to take pictures of sick animals in the field so that they can be sent electronically, facilitating rapid diagnosis.

Illinois used a recent $165,000 grant to establish the Illinois Animal Terrorism Information Hotline. Through the hotline—(888) 426-4767—veterinarians, livestock producers, and government or health officials can call in with concerns relating to unusual illnesses in food animals, wildlife, and pets that may be tied to terrorism. The hotline will be staffed 24 hours a day by specially trained veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Tips will be immediately referred to appropriate state officials. The project is a joint effort involving the Illinois departments of Agriculture and Public Health, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Animal Poison Control Center.

In states such as Kentucky and Indiana, homeland security funding has allowed animal health agencies to hire extra biosecurity and emergency planning staff. Some newly created positions at state animal health agencies are dedicated to certain projects, and others are aimed at improving disaster preparedness and management in general.

Homeland Security monies are also contributing to collaborative efforts among states. The Multi-state Partnership for Security in Agriculture is composed of Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Dr. Colleen O'Keefe, acting state veterinarian at the Illinois Department of Agriculture, says this group meets fairly regularly. "We are coordinating so that if we have a problem, we have basic things, like who to contact ... what to expect from the various states if something happens as far as quarantines," Dr. O'Keefe said. States are working out the logistics of sharing resources; various agencies handle different aspects of emergency response. Funding is also being used to establish emergency response teams on a state level.

These are only a handful of ways states are using funding, and with each grant, the ability to protect the nation's agriculture grows. The funding is expected to continue. In late January, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson announced that President Bush's fiscal year 2005 budget request includes a $274 million biosurveillance program initiative designed to protect the nation against bioterrorism and strengthen the public health infrastructure. HHS would spend $135 million to strengthen laboratories, better monitor human health, and enhance food surveillance. The USDA would spend $10 million to improve food and animal surveillance.