Tuesday, June 09, 2009

FEMA Chief, Northcom General Cite Military's Hurricane Response Role

By Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill, Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON - The National Guard is essential to hurricane response, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency told lawmakers here last week.

W. Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator, and Army Maj. Gen. Frank Grass, U.S. Northern Command's director of operations, testified June 4 before an ad hoc disaster-response subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"The National Guard is a key component of any state governor's ability to respond to a variety of disasters," Fugate said. "They are a force multiplier for the ... state responders. [The National Guard] is a key component of our national defense strategy."

Fugate said one of the first things he did after he was sworn in May 19 was to meet with Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

"We have a very strong statewide mutual aid system under [the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, and] we leverage that with the National Guard," Fugate said.

The National Guard and Northcom stand ready to support civil authorities in the 2009 hurricane season, which began June 1, Grass said.

The National Guard is "the first responders in support of [civil authorities] and the governor, so they're going to be there first," Grass told the subcommittee. "It behooves us at Northcom to understand their capability and look at their response times, because if they're successful at the local level, that's less federal assets we have to put forward."

National Guard, Northcom and FEMA leaders were joined by state and county officials at a hurricane workshop in South Carolina earlier this year, Grass told lawmakers.

"We walked through ... how the locals would be responding, how the state would respond [and] then the National Guard gave us a lay-down by state of where their shortfalls were," Grass said. "Then FEMA came in and explained what capabilities it may be requesting.

"The biggest shortfall this current hurricane season," he continued, "probably is in the brigade structure of the National Guard, because of the number of brigades deployed [overseas]. Even though it's a shortfall in certain regions, it's not a shortfall across the nation. It's a matter of reallocating forces, and the National Guard is working very closely ... with the state adjutants general to identify those forces that can fill those shortfalls."

Grass said a similar situation exists with helicopters, and that equipment from other regions can relieve a shortage in a particular state.

A third challenge is aeromedical evacuation, Grass said.

"We've improved greatly since last hurricane season on the ability to identify patients, ... move [them], how to receive them," he said. Defense and federal coordinating officers are working with local officials to improve communication before a storm.

Any hurricane response will be a joint effort by military forces supporting civilian authorities, Grass said.

"We've looked closely at the active component – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard – ... to see where their assets would be available," Grass said.

National Guard Bureau and Northcom leaders talk daily to coordinate efforts, Grass said in an interview after his testimony.

"Between Northern Command and NGB, we're all watching the continental United States and the states and territories," Grass said. "If we see something out there, ... we immediately make contact with each other."

NGB's command center and the North American Aerospace Defense Command and Northcom command center work together closely, and whenever National Guard forces are deployed domestically, "we're prepared to back them up," Grass said.

"The key point in this response – whether it's a local Guard unit or it's a federal force being called in because the governor said he has a shortfall – is that we're always in support of a civilian agency on the ground that needs help, and we owe it to the taxpayers – to our citizens – to use the best asset that we have the quickest."

During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Grass was deputy director of the Army National Guard. He then served abroad in U.S. European Command, returning last year to take up his position at Northcom. That previous hurricane experience, plus his time abroad, has given him a perspective on the nation's current hurricane preparedness, he said.

"To see the changes, it's night and day," Grass said. "Northcom has matured. The Guard has matured in their relationships with the states and with Northern Command. Just the fact that today there are five reserve component general officers serving full time at Northern Command and there are three traditional Army Reserve and Air Guard and Army Guard generals serving at Northern Command – we have a much closer relationship than we have ever had. The FEMA administration has reached out to the interagency and to the Department of Defense.

"When you look at a total reserve force of over a million, and the National Guard at over 460,000 Army and Air Guardsmen," he continued, "there's no reason the National Guard Bureau can't make that response happen through [emergency management assistance compacts] – and we would be prepared from Northern Command to step in and help if there were gaps."

As is increasingly the case throughout the Defense Department, Northcom is a truly joint environment, Grass said.

"I don't care what uniform you wear or what component you're with," Grass said, "your No. 1 mission should be defense of the homeland and providing response capability to the citizens of the United States."