USDA is committing $100 million for a new First Responder Initiative to help rural emergency agencies better react to potential terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

“The Bush administration is committed to assisting rural communities prepare for emergencies and the delivery of lifesaving services,” Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said during a visit to the University of Minnesota's new Center of Excellence for Agro Security in Minneapolis.

“The funds are a major investment in the lives and security of our citizens and are part of USDA's ongoing investment in the future of rural communities and their ability to better prepare for emergency situations.”

Veneman and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge took part in a visit to center funded by the Department of Homeland Security.

Veneman said that as part of USDA's First Responder Initiative, a minimum of one of every five dollars of fiscal 2004 community facility funding available will be dedicated to first responder type requests.

USDA's Rural Development agency provides financing of a variety of community facilities, such as libraries, courthouses, fire and rescue facilities and equipment, police and emergency vehicles and services and other community-focused facilities and services. The initiative will set priorities for at least $100 million to specifically strengthen the ability of rural communities to respond to local emergencies.

The following types of projects are emphasized through this initiative:

Fire protection equipment; police stations; fire stations; police cars; fire trucks; Civil Defense buildings; rescue and ambulance services; emergency response training; hospitals; physicians' clinics; outpatient care; early storm warning systems; county health department offices; migrant health centers; food preparation distribution center; communications centers; animal shelters; mobile communications centers; and education facilities for emergency responders.

Veneman said that so far $81 million has been obligated to fund 20 fire stations, 24 fire trucks, eight police cars and other fire and rescue equipment, including $36,500 for a fire truck and ambulance for Minnesota.

In addition, funding will support over 20 health care-related efforts such as hospitals and medical centers, as well as nine ambulances. In total, over 100 first responder applications have been approved for funding. Funding of selected applicants will be contingent upon meeting the conditions of the loan and/or grant agreement. A list of the individual awards can be found at http://www.rurdev.usda.gov.

USDA Rural Development has invested more than $1.5 billion in addressing community needs that assist with public safety, education, health care, cultural, transportation, and other public needs, including: the purchase of 508 fire trucks, 103 police cars, and 156 ambulances and construction or renovation of 79 hospitals, 71 public or charter schools, and 155 child care centers.

The Agriculture Department has also invested $29 million in grant funds in 93 telemedicine grant projects to develop technologies needed to enhance medical care involving 846 health care institutions.

Veneman and Ridge were in Minneapolis to highlight a new Department of Homeland Security Centers of Excellence for Agro Security.

In April, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that Texas A&M University and the University of Minnesota were chosen to lead two new centers. DHS anticipates providing Texas A&M University, the University of Minnesota and their partners with a total of $33 million over the course of the next three years to address security in two key agricultural sectors — foreign animal diseases and food security.

The work that will be done at these institutions “is a vital component of our efforts to engage partners at all levels, including governments, academia and the private sector, to help protect food and agriculture,” said Veneman.

“The stakes are very high, not only in terms of human health and our agriculture system, but also in terms of our economy,” she said. “The food and fiber produced in our nation account for $1.24 trillion of our gross domestic product.”

For more information about USDA's effort in homeland security, visit www.usda.gov/.