David Helvarg / Insight @ San Francisco Chronicle – 2017-10-15 22:28:21
Let’s Reinforce the Ranks of Our Disaster Warriors
David Helvarg / Insight @ San Francisco Chronicle
(October 12, 2017) — The enormous toll of our expanding wildfires, which have seen tens of thousands of people evacuated, communities devastated and lives lost from California to Canada to Montana, together with this season’s hurricanes, has stretched our first-responder system to the limit. It’s only going to get worse.
Though it might make sense for the Pentagon to establish a Disaster Response Command as its 10th Unified Combatant Command, it would make more sense to redirect some of the hundreds of billions of dollars that Congress lavishes on the Department of Defense to more focused disaster response organizations and capabilities located within the US Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Forest Service, and elsewhere.
NOAA has documented the rapid growth of multibillion-dollar extreme-weather events. These parallel the warming of our atmosphere and ocean during the three hottest years in recorded history, 2014, 2015 and 2016. As this destruction grows, so should our response capabilities.
Along with many everyday heroes, the professional rescue crews mobilized over the past few months have shown incredible stamina and determination. On Oct. 20, there even will be a Hollywood paean to some of these disaster warriors with the release of Only the Brave, a cinematic celebration of the lives of 19 Hotshot crew firefighters killed on the job in Arizona four years ago.
In the past, warfare has been the primary rite of passage by which young men proved themselves as warriors, with the survivors going on to become the leaders of our clans, tribes and nations.
In the near future, our warriors and leaders may increasingly come from the ranks of young people willing to go in harm’s way to confront an expanding number of often unpredictable catastrophes in dangerous settings — from the heart of our major cities to the most remote ocean atolls.
Specialized first responders and multi-mission agencies, including the Coast Guard and FEMA, are already doing this, but with far too limited resources.
We need to create incentives to recruit and deploy these frontline operators in far greater numbers. Most elite federal wildlands firefighters, for example, are considered seasonal employees by the Forest Service, without the year round pay and long-term benefits, including health benefits, guaranteed any Army private. While recognizing this challenge, the Forest Service lacks the funding to do anything about it.
The Coast Guard, with 40,000 active duty members, easily could be expanded to the size of the Marine Corps with its fighting force of 180,000. Even as its coastal and global missions have expanded in ice-free Arctic waters, foreign ports, on the high seas, and in our flooded towns and cities, much of the Coast Guard’s fleet remains too small or too old, particularly its icebreakers and offshore patrol cutters.
FEMA, which has been reorganized since its abysmal failure 12 years ago during Hurricane Katrina, can now call on some 6,000 members of 28 Urban Search and Rescue Teams within local fire departments around the nation. But with increased deployments straining municipal resources, there may be a need for full-time national units with dog and drone capabilities plus increased federal funding.
Other disaster warriors in need of greater support include the CDC’s Rapid Response Teams working to contain Ebola, Zika, yellow fever, and other deadly outbreaks and pandemics.
The US military is also starting to project more “soft power,” repurposing its armed warriors by, for example, sending troops, aircraft and warships to Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after the hurricanes, providing C-130 Hercules aircraft to fight wildfires in the West and military police to Napa to help with security.
I first witnessed this soft power in action when the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima docked at the New Orleans waterfront after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, its deck acting as a mobile emergency airfield while also providing dry berthing, air conditioning, showers and meals for thousands of National Guardsmen and relief workers.
The Iwo Jima joined the carrier Abraham Lincoln off the badly impacted Florida Keys for several days after Hurricane Irma struck. But by the time Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, the federal response seemed to have dropped well below the scale needed.
And though it may be harder to implement solutions when so many of our leaders refuse to acknowledge the problem, we still need to grow the ranks of our first responders while also recognizing that not all our frontline warriors need be soldiers.
David Helvarg is an author and the executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation and policy group. Among his books is Rescue Warriors — The US Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.