Even with a rapidly declining amount of federal homeland security funding bound for Utah, emergency responders feel much better prepared to handle terrorist attacks and other disasters than they were before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Plus, they still have more than $17 million to spend, which is half of their 2005 grants and all of their 2006 grants. It's money that will be used for equipment ranging from $500 ladders to $80,000 SWAT vehicles and, increasingly, multiple agency planning and training exercises.

This year, Utah received $9 million in combined homeland security grants, which was only half of its $18 million in 2005 grants and less than a third of the $30 million it received in 2003. While that steady reduction does have state officials concerned, it is not a surprise, especially after new processes were used to ensure that homeland security money is distributed to the areas most at risk.

"Everyone was expecting it to happen, they just didn't know when," said Kris Hamlet, the financial manager for the Utah Division of Emergency Services and Homeland Security. "This year, especially with the new process, it was much more competitive nationally ... put more pressure on the state to determine its priorities."

Along with less money, agencies have also purchased fewer big-ticket items, although that has more to do with need than money. Many agencies have already bought most of the needed heavy equipment — things like boats, all-terrain vehicles or personnel carriers that cost tens of thousands of dollars — and are now outfitting those with supplemental hardware, like computers and hand tools, and paying to train their personnel on them, Hamlet said.

In fact, a sampling of purchases from the 2005 grants demonstrates the range of items purchased:

Davis County Sheriff's Office spent $9,960 to buy 40 riot helmets with shields.

Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office spent $3,209 on a bomb-sniffing dog.

West Jordan police bought 28 digital cameras for $3,780.

Garfield County Sheriff's Office bought two ATVs for $13,000.

Kane County has ordered a specially equipped power boat for $49,043.

Uintah County Sheriff's Office spent $64,193 on an infrared camera.

Agencies are working more with neighboring law enforcement or fire departments to develop regional plans that can be implemented in the case of major disasters. At the same time, federal officials are encouraging training and equipment that can be used during natural disasters as well as terrorist attacks, prompted in no small part by the many communication and planning failures before, during and after Hurricane Katrina last year.

"The grant program has become more all-hazards," said Russ Fillmore, financial officer for the Division of Emergency Services and Homeland Security. "There have been some big natural disasters, and (The U.S. Department of) Homeland Security has wanted the local agencies to be able to better respond to those disasters."

While there are always more things that the department needs, the "money really helped us get things that could have taken years" if funded through the local governments, Cache County Chief Deputy Sheriff Dave Bennett said. More important, the flexibility of the funding allows departments to purchase equipment tailored to their needs and to also address their response ability for the most realistic disasters.

"In Cache Valley, we're not expecting the next terrorist attack to hit here," he said. "But it's not all about terrorism; it's also about natural disasters or other things that really could hit us."

E-mail: jloftin@desnews.com; bbjr@desnews.com