Homeland security preparedness center lags on hiring, training

Jennifer Fusco

New York state is spending $3.4 million this year on a state Preparedness Training Center that’s fallen far short of meeting initial projections for both employees hired and emergency responders trained.

Total spent: Close to $3,000 per police officer, firefighter, correction officer, health official or National Guardsman trained in 2007.

Local and state officials say they remain committed to the center, which opened two years ago in the terminal building of the former Oneida County Airport.

Still, some are concerned with its slow growth rate.

“This program needs to start moving in the direction of strong activity,” said Legislator William Goodman, D-Whitesboro. “It’s not moving fast enough.”

The O-D reviewed records and interviewed state and local officials about the center, which was once touted as New York’s hub for emergency-response disaster training for first responders.

The O-D’s findings include:

- The 10 people employed at the center represent only one-sixth of hiring goals. Now, instead of as many as 60 jobs added in Whitestown, officials are projecting only 20.

- The 1,100 public-safety and health personnel trained in 2007 represent less than 5 percent of the initial projection of 600 trainees per week.

- More than two years after the center was created, it still lacks sufficient space at the former airport and must conduct some classes at Utica College. Officials blame the delayed signing of a lease.

- The O-D repeatedly requested a list of the employees at the center, as well as their titles and salaries, but the state failed to provide it. The O-D has filed a Freedom of Information Law request.

State officials offered no clear timetable for meeting initial projections for hiring and training.

Dennis Michalski, a Homeland Security spokesman, said classes at the center will double from 40 to 80 this year, but would not predict how many people would be trained in 2008.

“That's the unknown,” he said. “We can't speculate on numbers.”

Later, another Homeland Security spokeswoman, Jody Ankabrandt, said the number of trainees would rise at least 20 percent this year, or by about 275 people.

Initially, the center was supposed to train more than 25,000 emergency responders per year.

Classes will be on subjects such as cybersecurity, bombs and weapons of mass destruction.

State Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, D-Rome, said she follows the progress of the center closely, and is confident it will grow as projected.

“As far as I’m concerned, the future is very bright for the Homeland Security center,” she said. “If I have any disappointment, it’s the time frame in which it’s been moving.”

Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente said it’s too early to tell if taxpayer money is being well spent at the Whitestown center.

“I don’t feel I can answer that right now,” Picente said. “If a year from now the same numbers exist, then it’s not.”

‘A model for the nation’

When then-Gov. George Pataki announced Whitestown would get the center in December 2005, officials hoped it would be the type of economic boost the area needed.

“Our goal is to develop this training facility into a federally recognized and accredited center, which will serve as a model for the nation and the training hub for the first response community from across the Northeast,” Pataki said at a Dec. 5, 2005, news conference. “The selection of the Oneida County Airport will ensure that this important training begins as soon as possible.”

Leaders said the center would create jobs, boost local businesses and raise Oneida County's profile. The Convention and Visitors Bureau spoke of hotel rooms filled with hundreds of trainees each week.

Some trainees did come – from the New York Police Department, from Niagara County Emergency Management, from the Oneida Indian Nation. But they did not come in nearly the numbers initially expected.

On Friday, a sign declared the old airport terminal to be the home of the State Preparedness Training Center, but the building sat amid a vast expanse of empty parking lot, with only a few vehicles parked next to the structure. The center did conduct training, but at Utica College, which had available classroom space that the former airport site lacks.

Spitzer spokeswoman Jennifer Givner said the state is committed to the center and its growth.

“Clearly, I would say emergency preparedness is the utmost priority for the governor in this administration,” she said. “We’re definitely meeting the same numbers last year, with hopes to exceed that.”

Budget details sought

The center’s projected 2007-08 budget is $3.4 million, according to the state’s Budget Office. The O-D has filed a Freedom of Information Law request to learn just how the money is being spent.

The center employed nine people a year ago, and 10 now. Their names and salaries are also the subject of an O-D FOIL request.

The former airport ultimately should see about 20 employees working at the center, Destito said.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Bonanno said there are 64 positions on the books for the center.

Some of those jobs will be in Albany, not Whitestown, but Bonanno said she was unsure of the breakdown.

Whatever the number, Picente said the center was never about the number of jobs. It was about making the region a hub for Homeland Security training and about an economic impact from high volumes of trainees traveling here.

“It’s going to take a couple of years to grow that much,” Picente said. “There’s no question it’s moving much slower than we thought, and I hope in this new year it will begin to move.”

Hope for progress

Why hasn’t more occurred?

Leaders cited the change in gubernatorial administration a year ago, as well as lease issues.

The lease between the county and the state was signed several months ago, which gives the center more space for additional programs and more training.

“I would hope we would see those numbers by June or so,” Picente said, referring to an increase in training numbers.

State Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, acknowledged the center hasn’t met its projections, but said part of that is due to the change in administration from Pataki to Spitzer — which happened shortly after the center first opened.

“Each administration has to pursue the direction they want to pursue,” he said.

Protecting the public remains a priority in the post-9/11 era, Griffo said. Having the center in Oneida County meets that need and also creates the potential for a greater economic impact locally, he said.

“I’ve got to give the benefit of the doubt to the administration,” Griffo said.

EDGE not involved

Mohawk Valley EDGE is the region’s main economic-development arm. It did not have a role in bringing the training center to the Mohawk Valley, spokesman Rob Duchow said.

He would not comment on the initial goals for the center.

“This is an investment that New York state wanted to make,” he said. “And for

them to invest in our community is good for us, opposed to investing in another

part of the state.”

The center is worth having as long as the state manages it right, Goodman said.

As for Legislator Goodman, he retains some optimism.

“The state itself will hopefully move more rapidly to make sure the goals are achieved that were presented in the past,” he said. “I think the concept is very good.”

Still, he said, he’d be watching.

“It should be an ongoing monitoring system,” he said.


At a glance

- The State Disaster Preparedness Center was announced in December 2005 for the then-Oneida County Airport in Whitestown.

- Its purpose is to train emergency personnel for situations dangerous to the public including terrorist attacks.

- State officials said it could become a hub for anti-terrorism training in the Northeast.

- Officials projected more than 25,000 trainees per year and the hiring of dozens of employees.

- Fewer than 1,800 people have been trained, 641 in 2006 and 1,100 last year, the state says. The center employs 10 people.

- It lacks sufficient classroom space at the airport site and conducts some classes at Utica College.

- A total of 376 agencies used the center in 2007, according to the state Office of Homeland Security.

- Groups included the Fire Department of New York, the Syracuse fire Department, the Broome County Department of Health and the National Guard.

- The state said it will double the number of classes from 40 to 80 in 2008, serving an additional 275 emergency responders.