Hurricane Sandy Puts New National Guard Command Mechanism to Work

By Valerie Insinna

As Hurricane Sandy moved toward the East Coast at the end of October, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and affected governors agreed to appoint dual status commanders who could direct federal and National Guard forces.

These commanders are typically National Guard officers who have been trained to preserve the two separate chains of command of federal and state forces, helping to coordinate troops and reduce redundancies.

The dual-status commander is a fairly new mechanism, one that stems from problems associated with the coordination of state and federal forces during Hurricane Katrina.

Although dual status commanders had been appointed during Hurricane Isaac in Florida and the wildfires in Colorado earlier this year, Hurricane Sandy marked the first time they grappled with a disaster of such magnitude.

Under the direction of these commanders, Guard personnel conducted damage assessments and search-and-rescue missions, removed debris, delivered supplies and equipment, and supported evacuation shelters.

The Defense Department also named active duty deputies to help supply dual status commanders with active duty troops if needed to deal with the effects of the hurricane.

According to a report put out by the National Governors Association, after the Pentagon dispatched two Army brigades to the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, the commander of those forces began to give orders to the Guard, which is under the command of the state’s governor. The disconnect between active duty and National Guard troops resulted in a blurry chain of command, congressional investigators concluded. That, in turn, impeded aid efforts.

In the years following Katrina, the Defense Department argued that the secretary of defense should be given the authority to command the reserves in times of disaster, while the governors association preferred an approach that would either give the governor or a dual-status commander control of both National Guard troops and federal active duty troops operating during an emergency.

Finally, a bipartisan council of 10 governors met with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other Pentagon officials in January 2010.  Eventually, the stakeholders decided that “unity of command” was necessary and agreed upon the mechanism of a dual status commander, stated the report.

Every state has at least one or two officers trained through Northern Command and the National Guard Bureau to serve as a dual-status commander.  Some active duty officers have also gone through that training as well, said Heather Hogsett, director of the National Governors Association’s health and homeland security committee.

The training incorporated lessons on how best to maintain two chains of command, working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and dealing with other interagency issues, she said.

“Another key piece of the training is … building relationships and making sure that all of the key players know each other. … When something happens, they know who to go to, they’ve worked with each other before, and they have that trust and respect for each other that was lacking in Katrina.”

Almost every governor has signed an agreement with the Defense Department that allows him or her to name a dual status commander after receiving approval over the phone from the secretary of defense, Hogsett said.

The association is now looking into how to best share information between state authorities and the Pentagon during a natural disaster, Hogsett said. One key challenge will be working through differences in technology used by each organization, she added.

Photo Credit: Army

Topics: Homeland Security, Disaster Response

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