Guard’s role in disaster response defined more clearly

  • Published
  • By Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy
  • National Guard Bureau
Through an ongoing initiative between state governors and Department of Defense leadership, greater steps have been taken to further define the National Guard's role as the first military force to respond to emergencies and disaster situations, said Dave Heineman, governor of Nebraska, while addressing attendees at the 2012 Domestic Preparedness Workshop last week.

Known as the Unity of Effort, the initiative seeks to define the roles and responsibilities of the Guard, Active Duty and Reserve component forces should they all be needed as part of disaster response operations.

"For governors, Unity of Effort is really about partnerships and maintaining a clear chain of command so we can best serve our citizens in time of crisis," Heineman said.

One of the main outcomes of the initiative is that it clarifies that a Guard officer is to serve as a dual-status commander, maintaining command over both state forces - Guard elements - and federal military units that may also respond to an emergency or disaster situation occurring within the states.

"This document discusses the roles of governors and adjutant generals during a response and states that they are to be the principal support authority," said Heineman. "While this sounds simple, this phrase did form the basis for what has become an historic agreement that will dramatically change how this country prepares and responds to emergencies."

The plan has its roots in the response to Hurricane Katrina, said Heineman.

"Emergency response personnel from all across our country were called upon to assist, including 50,000 National Guard forces from every state and every territory," said Heineman. "As the floodwaters slowly receded and the country assessed what had occurred, some in the federal government decided that federalizing the response effort was the solution."

But, Heineman said, many others felt there was an alternative solution that answered the question of how to coordinate federal military forces with Guard elements in a disaster situation.

"It became very clear, in the very first meeting, that a dual-status commander in an emergency offered the best alternative to finding a solution to these challenges," said Heineman.

As a way to implement that, the Council of Governors was formed. Composed of 10 governors working on behalf of all the governors, the Council worked with the Department of Defense to develop a joint plan of action.

"The joint action plan lays out the plan forward for state and federal military forces to better coordinate their work," said Heineman. "At the end of the day, that's what it's all about."

The plan of action specifically addresses the role of the dual-status commander and - early in the drafting of the plan - a training and certification program was developed for those who may serve as a dual-status commander, Heineman said.

"The training program was operational within a year, and almost every state now has at least one National Guard officer trained to serve in this important role," Heineman said.

The plan of action has helped to solidify the working relationship between the state and federal governments.

"(It has) helped further establish trust between the governors and the Department of Defense and it is providing the foundation for a new, stronger partnership between state and federal military forces," Heineman said, referring to Unity of Effort as "the cornerstone for a successful emergency response effort."

But as a way to improve upon that cornerstone, Heineman said that both the adjutants general and the governors must maintain a solid dialogue on the Guard's capabilities within the state.

"You need to have a close personal relationship with your governor and you need to do it on days that your governor doesn't need to see you," Heineman said, addressing the adjutants general present. "We need to know how you can respond and all the things that you do and to see the troops in action well before that emergency response is necessary."

Heineman stressed the importance of the role the Guard plays.

"The role the National Guard is playing today is extraordinarily different than what it was 20 or 30 years ago," Heineman said. "It's amazing what you do and the training that (is provided) and the exceptional manner in which you perform those missions. It's better today than we've ever had. We don't want to go back. It's absolutely phenomenal."

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