By Bob Jaffin
Tornado disasters in Iowa…ice storms in Washington…fires in California … Snow and flooding in New England. One common feature is that the local police and fire, along with the National Guard, are undermanned when responding because too many first responders are off fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Local National Guard armories have been stripped of hardware and assets in order to sustain the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, which means the first-responders are also under-equipped.
This highlights the larger issue of public service and volunteerism in this country.
This often-overlooked challenge has local emergency planners and volunteer organization officials very concerned. If the underlying numbers are correct, it signals major problems for even relatively small multi-jurisdictional events or disasters. In Jefferson County West Virginia, for example, the subject has come up at Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) meetings, meetings of the county’s counterterrorism committee and at meetings of the Jefferson County Office Homeland Security (JCOHS). Barbara Miller of JCOHS observed “Our citizens are very involved and love to help the community but many do serve in two or more organizations – in the case of county wide event we could have problems.”
Current estimates indicate the real number of volunteers actually available within a small to medium sized area would be some 25 – 40% less than the aggregate count on the volunteer lists – and this is before factoring in volunteers who simply do not show up, are tied down by family complications, or are on vacation or sick time. When these variables are added, the situation looks even bleaker. This is a daily concern for local emergency planners, yet not one that gets any attention at the state, regional, or national level.
Because there is a geographic-distance matrix that defines where we live in relationship to where we work, the ‘multi-volunteer’ creates double, triple or quadruple jeopardy. “Especially in small communities, you may have a person in the National Guard, working for the fire or police department, who may also be a part-time ambulance driver. So when you lose one person to deployment, you actually lose several functions,” states Randal Noller a National Guard spokesman in a YAHOO NEWS! Article dated June 14, 2007.
Here are two not-so-imaginary examples:
1 – Firefighter Jon DoGood works in a major metropolitan fire department and commutes to work from a small community 24 miles downwind and downstream from his job in the city. Jon is also a volunteer on the local Ambulance squad and National Guard Blackhawk helicopter crew chief. If there is an emergency in the city while Jon is on duty he can handle it without impact on his two volunteer jobs. But change that scenario to a 6,000 gallon chlorine tank rupture leak with a 25 mile downwind plume that has occurred just within city limits. While Jon is responding as a firefighter in the city he is also needed in his own community to help evacuate those in the path of the deadly plume. That’s DOUBLE JEOPARDY.
2 –Or the region is overwhelmed by a vicious spring storm that brought high wind, golf ball sized hail, and 22 inches of rain over three days. The governor then declares a state of emergency for the city and the ten surrounding counties, and activates the Guard. Everyone downstream of the city along the 42 mile long, 1000 yard wide path of the flooding needs to be evacuated, the city has cancelled all leaves and recalled all firefighter and law enforcement personnel for disaster relief activities including pumping out flooded power generation plants and water treatment facilities.
Does Jon help his family and neighbors as they rush to evacuate as they all own homes along the river? The police did in New Orleans when Katrina hit. That’s TRIPLE JEOPARDY plus the additional problem of family risk and split loyalties as we’ve seen from New Orleans and the recent Kansas tornados.
The fact is that the real number of volunteers available in any given area is much smaller than what is currently being reported, and far below what a summation of volunteer lists show as available. But these lists that provide the numbers that many emergency planners, local officials and first responders use in preparing large scale response plans, and in most jurisdictions nationwide they are just flat-out inaccurate.
Clearly the good news is that there is a cadre of Americans who can and do volunteer in their own communities and adjoining communities. The dual realities here are that this is still a relatively small number of our neighbors and co-workers, but, much more significantly, many of these selfless individuals are already on the public protection-first response payrolls. The issue received national attention in the aftermath of the tragic fire in Charleston SC in which 9 brave firefighters perished. The media coverage revealed that at least one of them was a volunteer fire fighter in another jurisdiction.
Yet another side of the volunteer issue is that of our public-spirited citizen-soldiers serving in the armed forces. In that same YAHOO article James Valiquet, president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police remarked how “A lot of the people that are given by nature to public service are serving their country overseas, In Manchester, our biggest city, they’re trying to fill 25 positions and they only had three or four viable candidates.”
This is a powerful demonstration of the impact of continued deployment of the Reserves and National Guard into the combat zones.
Additional, but less obvious issues include positions left vacant for extended periods of time due to deployments; the impact of combat related deaths in small towns; and the impact of incapacitating injuries on those public servants who return home and can no longer perform their duties, as well as the financial implications on both the individual and the town on those who may be eligible for extended benefits from the local jurisdictions.
The issues that need to be addressed are:
- How do we collect all volunteer information at the lowest or organizational level and
what level of detail should be required and standardized ?
- How do we integrate this information?
- Who will take on this responsibility and how will it be funded?
Unfortunately, solutions are much more complex then simply answering a set of questions. Since the challenges are multi-jurisdictional and tend to be viewed as “nobody’s” problems or “everybody’s” problems, there is no political interest left at any level of government to resolve the issue.
For many reasons the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not considered the concept of true regional team building, although F.E.M.A., EPA, and DOT have been very successful in creating permanent regional structures. There is now a solid, if regionally inconsistent, base of LEPCs that were created by statute to look at these issues. With proper support, enabling legislation and a change in DHS funding criteria that rewards pro-active regional grass roots activities; the lack of quality volunteer-personnel planning information can be corrected.
Three things are clear:
1. We cannot look to limit volunteerism in any way. It is an intrinsic part of the fabric that makes America great.
2. We need to involve a much larger segment of the American public in volunteer programs related to manmade and naturally occurring disasters.
3. Regional cooperation and coordination based on data sharing is neither a luxury nor a theoretical goal; it is an immediate necessity.
In the last two years scientists and governments have acknowledged that severe weather events are becoming, and will continue to become both more prevalent and more destructive. Additionally, last week’s attacks in London and Scotland continue to serve notice that the threat from Islamic terrorists remains very much alive.
It’s time for a federal agency to take the lead on this situation now.