Plan bridges gaps in homeland emergency responses
March 9, 2011
WASHINGTON, March 8, 2011 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has agreed to a plan that will allow for one commander to be in charge of both National Guard and reserve forces when they are called up to respond to domestic emergencies.
Gates, along with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and the Council of Governors -- a group President Barack Obama formed in January 2010 to represent all of the states' governors -- signed off on the agreement, known as the Joint Action Plan, during a March 1 Pentagon meeting, Defense Department officials said.
Paul N. Stockton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland security, today called the agreement "a breakthrough" in the military's ability to effectively respond to domestic emergencies, whether natural or manmade.
"This will be much more efficient, much more effective, and it will be a partnership that never existed before," Stockton told American Forces Press Service.
The plan creates a dual-status commander for each state, approved by the president and governor, to have simultaneous authority over both National Guard and reserve forces called up to respond to a state emergency, Stockton said.
Under the Constitution, Guard forces must be under state control for domestic events, and reservists and any active-duty forces must remain in federal control. The dual-status commanders can operate in both the state and federal chains of command without legal changes, Stockton said. In fact, he added, dual-status commanders have been used before for domestic events that are planned months in advance, such as political party conventions.
State and federal officials realized through the response to Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in August 2005, as well as in other natural disasters, that better coordination is needed in emergencies, he said.
"During Katrina, leadership didn't have an understanding of what was happening on the ground," Stockton said. "We need a better common operating picture of where the units are, their level of readiness, their response capabilities."
Commanders also need to know the local area, he said, such as roadway and building capacities.
"This is a whole new way to bring life-saving capabilities to bear," Stockton said. "Those first 72 hours are precious for saving lives."
The Joint Action Plan will provide uniformity to plans that vary greatly from state to state, he said, and all dual-status commanders are expected to be appointed and trained by early fall. More than 30 dual-status commanders already have been chosen in key locations, he said.
"That commander is the nexus, the coordinating person to ensure that forces work in collaboration," he said.
A second aspect of the agreement calls for a legislative change to give the president the authority to call up reservists for domestic emergencies - a change Stockton said is needed to streamline the process. Currently, if federal forces are needed to augment the Guard, a governor must make the request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, part of the Homeland Security Department, then FEMA must seek the assistance through U.S. Northern Command, which oversees North America and will oversee dual-status commander training, Stockton said.
Dual-status commanders may be named from either the National Guard, reserves or active-duty forces.