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Disaster Response Agencies Fight to Maintain Preparedness as Sequestration Continues 

12  2,013 

By Stew Magnuson 

The triad of budget cuts, continuing resolutions and the government shutdown may be leaving the federal bureaucracy less prepared to respond to catastrophic man-made or natural disasters, government representatives said. 

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley, chief of the Army Reserve and commanding general of the Army Reserve Command, said at the Association of the United States Army conference that his organization’s chemical companies have faced some pressure.

The Army is downsizing, he said. It was noted in the halls of the Pentagon that units specializing in chemical weapon decontamination never had to be deployed in Iraq and haven’t seen action in Afghanistan.

“Maybe you can get rid of those capabilities,” he was told.

“Lucky for me, the commandant for the chemical school in the Army and others jumped in and said, ‘You know what. … We need those to provide federal special capabilities in the homeland because they are well trained and very well equipped.’”

Reserve forces are relatively inexpensive to maintain, he said. The commercial-off-the-shelf equipment the units use mirror those that are found in first responder chemical response teams, which can help during national emergencies. The reserve’s chemical companies are also increasing their presence at Army North and at U.S. Northern Command, he noted.

“It provides a tremendous insurance policy to the unknowns in the future,” Talley said.

Lt. Gen. William E. Ingram Jr., director of the Army National Guard, said he is handling similar questions as budgets diminish.

Why do you need tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles for homeland defense missions? he has been asked.

“It’s not the tanks and Bradleys we need, it’s the organization,” he must explain to those looking to cut costs.

A brigade combat team organized into squads, platoons, companies, battalions and the equipment they have such as trucks and radios are valuable during a catastrophe. The same formations that are used in war fighting are used in a domestic response, Ingram said.

“It allows that formation to be used literally the next day before the wind stops blowing to assist locals in doing cordon search, checkpoints … as well as provide medical help,” he said.

“Honestly, the training for our combat formations really pays off in the homeland,” Ingram said.

But “with budgets diminishing, we are prioritizing what we keep and what we don’t,” he added.
Damon C. Penn, assistant administrator for national continuity programs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said his organization has tried to judiciously cut back.

To do so, it must know what its priorities are: what tasks must it perform; what tasks it would like to perform; and what it can’t.

“We have been very focused on making sure we didn’t produce a hollow agency where you just do an across-the-board cut of 30 percent, and all you have left is your salary and benefits, and you have people sitting around with no money to do their functions,” Penn said.

He cited radios as one example where FEMA would want to have multiple back-ups on hand during emergencies, but may now have to do without them.

“It is always difficult to provide funding for something that might happen when you’ve got things that are happening that you can’t fund. There is a very delicate balance there between what is enough and what you can actually live without,” he added.

The Border Patrol isn’t the first agency one thinks of when it comes to disaster response. But in the event of a large calamity, agents would be pulled from their traditional duties, flown to where they are needed and deputized to provide back up to local law enforcement, said Chief Michael Fisher.

Fisher said he will not stand before his agents and repeat the cliché that they will have to “do more with less.”

The reality is that the agency simply has to list its priorities using a risk-based approach and decide where it must focus its attention.

With further budget cuts, there will be a reduction in capability, he said.

“We are going to accomplish our priority missions with what we have,” he said.

Photo Credit: Defense Dept.
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