By JP Eichmiller
December 27, 2011
What does Homeland Security mean to the citizens of Wyoming one decade after 9/11?
Over the last several months, Wyoming Liberty Group investigative reporter JP Eichmiller was allotted unprecedented access into the inner-workings of the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security and the local and regional agencies it coordinates. State and county officials granted hours of in-person interviews, tours of facilities throughout Wyoming, inspections of equipment and access to internal reviews and expense accounts. Revealed through the investigation is a snapshot of the agency, people and funding that define homeland security in Wyoming today – the good, bad and often, the in-between.
Interviews were also conducted with the independent auditing and accounting firm hired by the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security to review compliance of federal Homeland Security Grant Program recipients. This series marks the first time several of these candid reviews of state and local spending practices of Homeland Security Grant funds have been made available to the public.
Two miles north of downtown Cheyenne, just off of Interstate 25, the former headquarters of the Wyoming National Guard appears all but abandoned. Were it not for the security checkpoints leading up to it, the slightly aged, single story brick building could easily be mistaken for an elementary school or the offices of some local municipality.
A tour of the building’s ground floor proves wholly unremarkable. Generic office cubicles dominate the floor plan. The carpeting appears ready for replacement and the walls in need of a fresh coat of paint. The previous tenants have removed all furniture or signs of what purpose this building may once have served. It hardly seems necessary, as is the case, to have security clearance or an official escort to enter here.
Underneath the vacant first floor, however, lies another story – centered on millions of dollars forced onto Wyoming by the federal government in the name of homeland security.
The State Operations Center of the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security occupies the basement of this nondescript building. This is a virtual command and control bunker from which federal, state and local emergencies can be and are managed. This is the epicenter for those tasked with mitigating damage during the worst of any disaster in Wyoming, be it natural or man-made.
The subterranean complex offers a completely opposite effect from the ground floor above. A quick elevator ride and short walk along a dimly lit corridor leads to a NASA-like command center. Four long rows of desks face a large wall adorned with large flat screen monitors, white boards and various color-coded maps of Wyoming. Clocks display the time in Wyoming as well as in locations around the world. The desks hold at least 20 individual work stations, each with it’s own computer and monitor.
When floods raged across Wyoming during the spring and summer of 2011, these seats were filled with representatives of first responder agencies, working in conjunction to coordinate the efforts of those on the scene and to provide logistical support. Remnants of recent disaster response operations occupy the walls in the form of maps, strategy notations and assignment orders. Communication stations are wired to speak with on-scene responders by cell phone, computer and a multitude of high frequency radio links. The occupants of the room are constantly apprised with updates from remote locales through instant computer feeds.
In an adjoining room, state Homeland Security coordinators assign teams to whatever disasters and emergencies may be occurring. Another office acts as a conference room for the high command and other interested parties to meet and update each other as events unfold. Private offices are reserved for the use of FBI, ATF or other federal agents that may be called in for support. There is even a full kitchen on site to feed those unable to leave during extended duty cycles. On site generators ensure the occupants will have power and heat should local blackouts occur.
Within the next couple of months, this location will become even better equipped to respond to emergencies. This January, the empty and dark upstairs offices are scheduled to be occupied by the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security’s (WOHS) full-time administrative employees. Also scheduled to move on site are all of the telecommunications experts, radiological response teams, equipment specialists and K-9 handlers, along with their multitudes of hardware, tools, vehicles and dogs. It will mark the first time in the existence of the WOHS — nearly a decade — which all 23 of the various WOHS state-level employees will be housed in one location.
In essence, what this building represents is the corporeal embodiment of the near-$118 million dollar investment placed into Wyoming’s homeland security programs.
Just over one decade ago, the term “homeland security” was void from American vernacular.
Today, however, the words represent an enigmatic jumble of foreign and domestic policies, massive government bureaucracies and billions of dollars in investments at all levels of government.
The most far-reaching domestic response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks was the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – an unprecedented conglomeration of 22 separate federal departments under one overarching agency. Born out of the 2002 federal Homeland Security Act, the agency immediately opened a floodgate of billions upon billions of dollars across the nation.
The federal government ordered states to distribute the cash locally according to need. Virtually every county in the country that requested money for training and equipment received new funding and Wyoming’s 23 counties have been no exception.
Since 2002, Wyoming has received more than $111 million in federal funds intended to boost state and local security, and to enhance both terror prevention and emergency response coordination systems. Matching state and local funds have pushed total homeland security related spending in Wyoming past $118 million. The effects have been far-reaching and profound.
In 2003, the state Legislature authorized the creation of the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security, thereby transferring control of the state’s emergency management programs from the Wyoming Military Department to the Office of the Governor. The new agency has overseen the dramatic increase in the appropriations allotted to local first response teams and agencies. The logistical capabilities, equipment and response coordination systems have improved markedly as a result.
But while the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security has expanded rapidly, its growing pains also have been real. For all of the tangible effects the infusion of federal capital has had on modern equipment and training, there are glaring examples of the trappings of money and power – ranging from negligence to outright criminal behavior.
Up next; Part 2: 9/11 Signals a New Age in Federal Funding for Wyoming