As the United States approaches the end of the first decade of the 21st century, few would argue with the statement that homeland security has become a higher priority for Americans than ever before in the nation’s history. During the past year alone, events such as the attempted Times Square and Yemen-to-Chicago bombings – coupled with the accidental BP oil spill that is still affecting the Gulf Coast – have demonstrated that officials at all levels of government must be prepared to respond to a wide range of dangers threatening the U.S. homeland.

At the forefront of the increased homeland-security efforts has been a growing synchronization between civilian agencies and U.S. military forces, particularly members of the National Guard, which has created and implemented several new programs in recent years to help state authorities cope with widespread emergencies. Prominent among the new or upgraded Guard units are its Chemical, Biological, Radiological/Nuclear, and Explosive (CBRNE)-Enhanced Response Force Packages (CERFPs) and its Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams (WMD CSTs).

The Department of Defense is now once again setting the stage for expanded homeland security operations through creation of Homeland Response Forces (HRFs), which were previewed in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report. The HRFs, which are expected to be established in each of the country’s ten Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regions beginning next year, will significantly change the way National Guard units assist emergency responders by bringing a broad range of new capabilities to the scene of a mass-casualty incident or other major disaster.

Why Expand Homeland Security Now?

The 9/11 terrorist attacks and other events of the past decade have forever erased the mindset that the United States – previously protected by two oceans and its vast size – is immune to homeland attacks. That realization has also made it clear that, in the event of a widespread natural or manmade disaster, close and continuing coordination between civilian agencies and U.S. military forces is critical.

Although most often expected to play only a supporting role in disaster response, the U.S. military has taken several significant steps to expand its homeland-defense capabilities in recent years. In 2002, a major new Department of Defense command – the U.S. Northern Command, or USNORTHCOM – was established both to provide command and control capabilities for homeland defense forces and to coordinate the military support provided to civilian agencies.

Similarly, the National Guard has initiated several programs designed to assist in homeland security operations – establishment of the CERFPs mentioned above, for example, which provide immediate assistance in search and extraction, medical triage, and decontamination operations; and creation of the WMD CSTs, which assist in theentification and handling of potentially dangerous materials. Congress has helped significantly by amending Title 32 of the U.S. Code to ensure that these forces and other assets can easily and quickly be called upon to provide assistance – usually through either the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or at the request of a state governor.

Pitfalls, Confusion, and a Promising Solution

Although efforts made by the federal government in general, and the U.S. military in particular, have helped to improve homeland-response capabilities in recent years, several real-life disasters have proved that there are still too many pitfalls and problems in coordinating communications and operations between military and civilian authorities. In 2005, for example – during Hurricanes Rita, Wilma, and, most notably, Katrina – Americans, and the rest of the world, saw firsthand how confusion over command and control authority can hinder response efforts. (Many decision-making officials also fear that the current response times of most National Guard “force packages” would not suffice in the event of either a surprise attack against the U.S. homeland or several natural disasters hitting various regions of the United States simultaneously or almost so.)

Building on the lessons learned from previous attempts at creating an effective and fully capable response force, the Department of Defense proposed establishment of the HRF as part of the larger restructuring of homeland defense efforts called for in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. Each of the HRFs – which are designed to increase the National Guard’s operational flexibility and life-saving capabilities – will provide command and control capabilities for multiple CERFPs, WMD CSTs, and other National Guard assets to ensure both a faster and more effective response during and/or in the aftermath of a major disaster. In an effort to help reduce and mitigate confusion during a disaster, each HRF will also focus on planning, training, and exercising at the regional level between the various military forces and agencies usually called in to work together in the response and recovery operations following any disaster.

The new HRFs, which will be able to be called into an incident under U.S. Code Title 10, will be expected to have a 6-hour to 12-hour response posture similar to that expected of the current CERFPs. The units will usually be taken to the disaster scene via ground transportation – but can be transported by air if necessary. Additionally, and arguably most important, the HRFs will provide not only command and control, but also medical, search and extraction, decontamination, and security capabilities at the incident scene.

A Seismic Change in Future Operations

Establishment of the HRFs will not alter the way homeland incidents are managed in the United States. Local authorities currently manage about 85 percent of all emergencies that occur in the United States; only 11 percent are responded to – at the state level – by the National Guard, and an even smaller fraction (4 percent) require responses by active-duty military personnel at the federal level.

That distribution of response assignments is not expected to change. Americans can expect, however, that the HRFs – which will first be introduced in two states, Ohio and Washington, sometime in 2011 – will significantly change the way the National Guard offers support to local authorities during homeland response operations. The current CERFPs are usually assigned to a single state or highly populated area. Each HRF, in contrast, will still be controlled by governors at the state level – but equipped to lend support across an entire region encompassing more than one state. That change will help to ensure that the nation’s military forces are readily available to assist in response efforts anywhere within the United States – even in more isolated, less densely populated areas of the country.

The HRFs will also provide a faster response capability. That capability in itself may not seem overly significant – particularly given the fact that most National Guard assets already have a respectable response time. However, when combined with the medical, search and extraction, and decontamination capabilities of the HRFs, it means that future responders can expect more and better life-saving capabilities to be available at the incident scene much earlier than was ever before possible.

Given all that Americans have had to endure so far this century – from acts of terrorism to natural catastrophes to manmade environmental disasters – it seems likely that their new and/or expanded capabilities will help the HRFs bring the nation a giant step closer to the level of homeland response readiness the country will need to overcome the numerous and diverse threats it will undoubtedly be facing for years and perhaps decades to come.

Brad Stobb
Brad Stobb

Brad Stobb served a 20-year career with the U.S. Army; his most recent assignment was as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division on a deployment to Afghanistan. He is now a regional support manager for DHS Systems LLC, whose Deployable Rapid Assembly Shelter (DRASH) system has been trusted by military and civilian agencies alike.

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