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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  May 2011


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The 411 on 911s

Grant County needs better ways to update the public in emergencies.

This spring’s raging fire season (see Jay W. Sharp’s feature on wildfires elsewhere in this issue) prompted us to wonder anew about Grant County’s need for better ways to keep citizens informed in emergencies. Whether during this winter’s crippling blizzard, last year’s communications outage when a key telecommunications line was severed, or March’s Quail Ridge Fire, it can be frustratingly difficult to learn even the most basic information from local agencies. The recent spate of suspicious fires has only heightened such concerns.

Maybe that goes with the territory in a sprawling, mostly rural area that lacks the resources of big cities. But with today’s technology, that’s changing—or should be.

We’ve heard the frustration of evacuees from the Quail Ridge Fire who couldn’t get essential information even at the evacuation center. We checked the handsome Grant County website several times during the fire emergency, hoping for updates; from the website, you’d never know a fire was blazing out of control or that evacuations had been ordered. As we’ve previously noted in this space, efforts to inform authorities of dangerous conditions in the wake of the New Year’s Eve snowstorm failed to even find somebody who’d pick up the phone in the middle of the pre-holiday afternoon.

All of which is not to cast blame. Officials had their hands full at these times and many, especially the army of firefighters, performed heroically.

But maybe local authorities can learn something from these recent emergencies before the next one. It would cost nothing to add an emergency-information page to the existing www.grantcountynm.com website—and would require only a commitment from officials to update that page, with a point person (and a backup) to channel and post the information. (The Forest Service manages to do exactly that when fires strike within the Gila National Forest.) With the spread of wireless Internet and smartphones (especially since the arrival of ATT in our market, added to the Verizon presence), the web may be the most efficient and reliable way of keeping folks informed. Even in an emergency, evacuees who left their computers and Internet connections at home could check the situation via smartphone or at a kiosk at the evacuation center.

A dial-in recorded line should be set up, too, of course. And officials should investigate so-called “reverse-911” emergency-alert services, which automatically call homes in endangered areas.

Authorities also need to update their knowledge of who lives where before the next wildfire or similar disaster—at least to be as smart as Google Maps. We’ve seen one of the maps used to identify homeowners during the Quail Ridge blaze, and it’s years out of date. (The Fryxell house was still listed as the “Kronberg” residence—and we’ve lived here more than eight years.)

Is this too much to expect during a time of cash-strapped local governments? It’s not a matter of money, but of smarts and priorities. Grant County was able to build a snazzy website and even to post public documents about individuals such as wills and deeds online. There’s a nifty “Meet the Sheriff” page with a photo. If these smart folks can accomplish all that, surely they can create a way for residents to find out if a wildfire’s headed their way or if a snowstorm has closed the highway.

 

 

Dialing for Dollars

Steve Pearce tunes into an ideological agenda, instead of real deficit reduction.

Of the many disingenuous votes by Rep. Steve Pearce in the run-up to last month’s near-federal-government shutdown, perhaps the most overt was his joining with 227 fellow Republicans to cut funding for National Public Radio (NPR). This spring’s budget battle in Washington has been complex, with strong arguments on both sides. But if you really believe that it’s all about reducing the massive federal deficit—or that Pearce and his allies are serious about that challenge—the NPR vote serves as a neat little case study that demonstrates otherwise.

If Pearce were interested in deficit reduction, other than as a rhetorical hammer to pursue an agenda he wasn’t elected on (anybody recall him campaigning on a pledge to save America from the scourge of “Click and Clack” and “All Things Considered”?), he’d be looking for ways to make US corporations pay their fair share of the cost of government. He’d be outraged that GE paid no corporate income tax last year, or that Exxon Mobil legally stiffed Uncle Sam in 2009. Instead, Pearce says, “If we want a strong jobs recovery, we will have to cut taxes from where they are now, starting with the corporate income tax.”

“How can you cut below zero?” as Jon Stewart recently asked in mugging befuddlement on “The Daily Show.” The answer, of course, is that both GE and Exxon got millions back from the government!

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But back to NPR, whose listeners apparently lack the deep pockets of such corporate interests. Those listeners do pony up most of NPR’s $65 million budget, through their local stations such as KRWG-FM in southern New Mexico. Federal funding accounts for only $5.4 million a year of that total.

Pearce voted to cut federal funding for NPR, purportedly to help trim the deficit. Just to put that $5.4 million in perspective, it’s 0.13% of the $4.1 billion that GE got back from the US treasury in tax benefits last year.

This wasn’t really about saving money, though, but about punishing NPR for its perceived “liberal agenda.” Because the GOP proposal, which frivolously consumed most of a day in the midst of crucial budget deliberations, went beyond merely cutting funding: It also prohibited local stations from using any of the $22 million they receive in federal funds to pay for NPR programming.

“This legislation does not serve any fiscal purpose,” commented Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), “but it does serve an ugly ideological one.”

That’s been the subtext of much of this spring’s budget-cutting agenda. With corporations and the wealthy protected by a no-tax-increase pledge, and military spending apparently sacrosanct, programs that benefit the poor, children and the middle class are instead in the crosshairs. Instead of seeking real solutions to the nation’s budget morass, too many Washington politicians are using the budget “negotiations” (defined as demanding that the other side give in, then demanding some more) as cover for long-sought ideological goals.

As for public radio, perhaps Rep. Pearce needs to be reminded that he represents one of the largest Congressional districts without a commercial broadcast TV station and the local news such an operation brings to the community. KRWG-FM uniquely serves the area’s local news needs, much as NPR offers in-depth national and international news that would otherwise be unavailable here. Our representative in Congress needs to put his constituents ahead of his party’s increasingly narrow ideological agenda.

 

 

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.

 

 



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