In the decade since Hurricane Katrina, Pentagon officials have made numerous changes – both cultural and operational – intended to get defense personnel and equipment to the scene of a disaster in a matter of hours instead of days. They believe they’ve made progress.
The idea that the Defense Department’s vast array of capabilities – which range from logistical support for medical and fuel supplies to search and rescue and flood control – should be available to help with local emergencies is not a new one. Local officials have been able to ask for military assistance via the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a long time.
But the process was slow, or in military terms, “late to need.” A decade ago, DoD treated the mission it now calls Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA) as something of an afterthought, said Tom LaCrosse, who now leads the DSCA program within the office of the Secretary of Defense.
“I vividly recall getting a $1 billion request for assistance from FEMA for DoD to take over logistics operations in the area affected by Katrina. It took us a full weekend to break that down into about eight separate requests while we figured out what capabilities we had,” LaCrosse said. “That’s 72 hours that was lost, we never got back and that could have been used to move supplies to the survivors in the disaster area.”
But a lot has changed in the intervening years, LaCrosse told a meeting of the International Association of Emergency Managers this week. Local commanders at whatever base or reserve post happens to be closest to an emergency now have extremely-wide latitude to send their personnel and equipment to help first responders in the first few hours of an incident. No need for approval from higher headquarters; a phone call from a local mayor or state emergency management agency will suffice.
“That authority has been delegated from the secretary of Defense and we purposely wrote it in vague-enough terms so that the individual commanders who have day-to-day relationships with city mayors and county commissioners can gauge what’s needed and how quickly it’s needed. Nothing has to come up here to Washington. The decision is made in the field, as it should be,” he said.
The recently-expanded authority for local commanders comes with time limits, though they are not set in stone. In general, DoD and FEMA want local officials to make a more traditional request through normal emergency declaration channels if they expect they’ll need federal help for more than 72 hours.
And in cases that might require a longer-term federal response, LaCrosse said DoD has taken several other steps that reflect the fact that DoD is no longer treating civil support as a once-in-a-while mission.
Senior officers — most of them Army colonels — are now assigned as full-time military liaisons in each of FEMA’s ten regions so that DoD can better coordinate with state and local agencies in larger emergencies that might warrant a serious commitment of Defense resources. DoD has also built a special cadre of emergency preparedness liaison officers: reservists whose main drilling duties are to work regularly with state emergency officials and who can be brought to active duty for as long as necessary to serve as coordinators between FEMA, DoD and local governments.
“Part of this is the realization that it’s not just our military capabilities that might be relevant in an emergency, but it’s also all of our civilian expertise and all of the other functions they perform including our contracting capabilities that can come to the aid of our fellow citizens,” LaCrosse said. “Our strategic documents now recognize that one of our primary missions is to support civilian authorities.”
And in the event of a future disaster on the scale of Katrina, those documents envision a Defense response that uses DoD’s resources more efficiently and gets them into the field more quickly via a system of “pre-scripted mission assignments.”
“We now have a common lexicon for what might be needed in an emergency,” LaCrosse said. “The idea is that people won’t have to ask for a Blackhawk helicopter because they assume it’s the best way to move supplies from point A to point B. Instead, they tell us what they want moved from where to where and how many short tons it might be, and then all of the logistics wizards from all over the department of Defense can determine whether it’s best to move that by fixed-wing aircraft, by road, by rail or rotary-wing aviation. Logistics is one of the things the department of defense does every day.”
DoD officials cited a few positive examples of how their updated approaches to disaster coordination are working, including U.S. Pacific Command’s response to this month’s typhoon in the Western Pacific and the military’s contribution to wildland firefighting during a particularly tough fire season in the western United States.
In the case of Typhoon Soudelor, which knocked out electric and water supplies to much of the Northern Marianas islands, DoD responded with water purification equipment after fairly-rapid coordination with FEMA, said Lt. Col. Nicole Fuller, who is in charge of DSCA activities for the military’s Joint Staff.
“The power was out, wells were down, there was no way to distribute water, so they asked DoD to help stand up reverse-osmosis water purification units. Some of those were on a ship that happened to be off the coast of Guam after an exercise. We brought the Marines from that ship onshore in Saipan, and we provided fresh water for seven or eight days,” she said.
In the case of the wildfires raging throughout the Pacific and intermountain West this summer, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) has long been accustomed to asking the Air Force for extra equipment such as C-130s to augment Interior and Agriculture Department aircraft to help deploy flame retardant in the path of advancing fires.
But this time, NIFC asked DoD for extra manpower since most of the expert fire crews within its assignment system were already spoken for during an unusually hectic fire season. One week ago, the Boise, Idaho coordination center sent trainers to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where they trained, certified and organized 200 soldiers into Type-2 firefighting teams. As of this past Monday, they were on the ground and actively fighting fires in the Pacific Northwest, Fuller said.
The rapid military response was helped by the fact that DoD and NIFC had already reached an understanding for how national-level firefighting coordinators would ask for Defense assistance.
But the same principle applies to relationships between local base commanders and local officials in their communities, said Brig. Gen. Richard Staats, who oversees Army Reserve sustainment units based throughout the northeastern U.S.
“I’ve asked all of my commanders to get to know their local officials,” he said. “The analogy I use is that when you fall into the water, it’s not the water that kills you, it’s the panic and the fear and not knowing what to do. The more we can be prepared in the case of a natural disaster or an emergency of any type, the faster those communities can recover.”
Each week, Defense Reporter Jared Serbu speaks one-on-one and in depth with the people responsible for managing the inner workings of the federal government's largest department, and those who know it best. Subscribe to the latest episode on PodcastOne or iTunes.