In response to the recent flooding in Texas and Oklahoma, National Guard forces were quick to respond, highlighting the most recent incident involving the military’s vital role in responding to emergencies that exceed the capabilities of state and local first responders and emergency managers.
In the wake of this incident, the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications held a hearing Wednesday titled to examine the role of the military in homeland defense missions.
In particular, the hearing was called to explore the support capabilities of the military in cybersecurity; chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) incidents; and other disaster response activities.
“Like politics, all disasters are local,” said subcommittee chairman Martha McSally (R-Ariz.). “Whether it is a hurricane making landfall in a coastal state, a bomb exploding at a mass gathering, or a wildfire threatening life and property, state and local first responders and emergency managers will be the first on the scene to manage the response.”
“Sometimes, however, the magnitude of these emergencies will exceed the capabilities of these Responders,” McSally said.
DOD support of civil authorities in Response to threats against homeland
DOD plays a significant role in responding to threats to the homeland and major disasters and emergencies such as hurricanes and wildfires. Over the years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has conducted numerous audits recommending DOD address management challenges and gaps in guidance regarding support of civil authorities.
In 2010, Homeland Security Today reported on a pair of GAO reports revealing outdated strategies and a lack of coordination with federal partners. One report found DOD relies too much on personal relationships between military and civilian personnel to guide its interactions with homeland defense and civil support partners.
The audit also revealed that while DOD has developed many documents on its strategies, policies and guidance for interagency coordination with regard to homeland defense and civil support, it must clearly define the roles and responsibilities for its agencies and organizations that support those missions.
Furthermore, in two reports released in October 2012 and September 2013, GAO recommended DOD update and implement better guidance after discovering that DOD did not have a clear command-and control structure for managing complex catastrophes across multiple states and had not developed guidance for the use of dual-status commanders for incidents affecting multiple states and territories.
However, GAO’s latest audit report found DOD has taken action to strengthen its strategy, plans and guidance, as well as interagency coordination, and to address capability gaps in its support of civil authorities.
“Our work also shows that there remains room for improvement and that DOD recognizes this and intends to fully address the remaining recommendations from our prior reports,” GAO stated. “We continue to believe that their implementation will buttress the advanced planning and interagency coordination effort DOD requires to support civil authorities in responding to the myriad threats and challenges we face.”
With these advances, DOD is better prepared to defend the United States and assist civil authorities in the aftermath of a catastrophic incident than atany other time in our nation’s history, Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Whitlock, Deputy Director, Western Hemisphere, The Joint Staff, J-5, Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate, told the panel.
Whitlock emphasized DOD plays a supporting but important role in the national response system and relies on a broad range of defense capabilities to provide support. While most incidents can be managed on a local level, events of a greater magnitude require DOD support.
During Superstorm Sandy in 2012, for example, the Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) unwatered the longest tunnel in North America – the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel—at an unparalleled pace. USACE also installed 198 generators at critical locations, generating enough power at peak capacity to support the needs of 50,000 families.
DOD has also developed a wide range of CBRN response capabilities, and has trained to employ these capabilities rapidly in support to civil authorities to help save lives in the aftermath of a CBRN incident.
The CBRN Response Enterprise consists of 17,000 military personnel and 57 National Guard Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams. It provides a number of critical capabilities including detection and assessment of CBRN hazards; casualty search and extraction; casualty decontamination; emergency medical, patient triage, trauma care and surgical and intensive medical care; fatality recovery; ground and rotary-wing air patient movement; security; command and control; engineering; logistics; transportation; and aviation lift.
“DOD is prepared to assist civil authorities in saving and sustaining lives after manmade and natural disasters, including extreme weather events, pandemics, and industrial accidents,” Whitlock stated. “DOD understands this and is well-prepared to meet this expectation.”
Emergency Management: a ‘whole of community’ endeavor
Preparing, responding and recovering from disasters is a whole of community endeavor involving the public and private sector, volunteers, and individual citizens, as well as the military.
Consequently, “more than anything else, effective collaboration between emergency management agencies and the military is crucial if we want to see successful responses to disasters,” said Jimmy J. Gianato, director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management and a regional vice president of the National Emergency Management Association.
West Virginia, for example, implemented a Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) to develop the necessary planning and response capabilities. JIATF provided a formal mechanism for collaboration among emergency managers, the National Guard, and federal forces.
Implementation of the JIATF proved successful in 2012 during responses to a derecho and Hurricane Sandy, which caused major power outages and 55 infrastructure challenges across the state. With 53 of the West Virginia counties without power within minutes of the derecho moving in, making key decisions quickly was crucial.
JIATF leadership discussed the situation and quickly moved to deploy the West Virginia National Guard. Consequently, the state was able to manage its own power restoration capability.
“If we hope to see effective responses to disasters, we must involve the whole community, and one of the key partnerships in the whole community is between emergency management agencies and the National Guard,” Gianato said. “In West Virginia, we have had great success in strengthening this partnership, and other states have as well. As a result, these states are better prepared to respond to and recover from disasters.”
Similarly, Peter Gaynor, director of the emergency management office for the state of Rhode Island, emphasized emergency management requires a team effort from all facets of the community to assist with response and recovery.
In particular, cybersecurity has introduced an emerging role for the National Guard in partnership with local, state and federal agencies. Cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, such as power grids, can be more damaging than a hurricane or other major weather-related event.
Gaynor said Rhode Island’s emergency management office operates on the understanding that they are just one part of the state’s emergency management’s team, adding, “The US Armed Forces and National Guard have a historic precedent and enduring role in supporting civil authorities during times of emergency, and this role is codified in the national defense strategy.”
In agreement, Maj. Gen. Michael T. McGuire, Adjutant General for the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, said, “The National Guard is the most appropriate force to augment community, private business, and state partners in the event of a cyber-incident affecting the health and welfare of our citizens necessitating an emergency response."
Editor’ note: Also read the Homeland Security Today commentary, Dual-Status, Single Purpose: A Unified Military Response to Hurricane Sandy, by Gen. Charles H. Jacoby, Jr., and Gen. Frank J. Grass.