National Guard in short supply, some states fear
SEATTLE With so many National Guard troops in Iraq, officials in some states are worried they could be caught short-handed if an emergency flares up at home.
Their more frequent and longer overseas deployments "absolutely" affect states' emergency response, said Chris Reynolds, a battalion fire chief in Tampa, Fla., who teaches disaster management at American Military University.
The effect is critical, Reynolds said, not just because so many National Guard members are gone, but because so many reservists work in public safety and emergency response. "It's the tenure and experience that's missing, and you can't simply fill the hole with someone," Reynolds said.
Governors rely on the Guard to serve as a last line of defense during natural disasters and civil emergencies. And as the hurricane and wildfire seasons begin, many states are uneasy and uncertain.
"We just have to hope their deployments coincide with the off-season for fires in California," said Jim Wright, deputy director of California's Department of Forestry.
Guard leaders have assured states that remaining Guard units can handle their emergency needs. A recently released General Accounting Office report, however, warns that overseas deployments could strain the National Guard's stateside mission.
"Equipment and personnel may not be available to the states when they are needed because they have been deployed overseas," the GAO report concludes. "Moreover, the Guard may have difficulty ensuring that each state has access to units with key specialized capabilities such as engineering or medical assets needed for homeland security and other domestic missions."
Some states expect to feel the squeeze less than others. In Texas, for example, only 12 percent of the Army National Guard is deployed, while 81 percent of the the Idaho Army National Guard has been alerted, mobilized or deployed.
Hawai'i also carries a lighter burden, with 12 percent of its Guard members deployed.
"We're in a whole lot better shape than some states that don't have many people to begin with," said Lt. Col. John Stanford of the Texas Army National Guard.
Gulf states and those along the Atlantic Coast are bracing for a rough hurricane season. North Carolina, ravaged by Hurricane Isabel last year, has been assured by Guard leaders that they are prepared for this season despite the deployments, said Ernie Seneca, spokesman for Gov. Mike Easley.
The West is facing another summer of dry conditions and nasty wildfires. California's wildfire season has started, with 29,000 acres burning this month. The Golden State has its own fire crews, with U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies protecting government land. But Guard members often are called to work at base camps and can find themselves on the fire lines during large blazes.
Wright, the forestry official, lives with the knowledge that the California National Guard's Blackhawk helicopters and C-130 planes that helped douse the Southern California fires could be sent to Iraq at any moment.
If necessary, Wright said, California could turn to private contractors or call on other states for firefighting help.
When Oregon suffered its worst fire season in a century in 2002, about 1,400 Oregon Army Guard members helped fight the blazes. Oregon National Guard leaders told GAO researchers they wouldn't be able to repeat that performance today because forces and equipment are deployed overseas.
Washington state has spent $200,000 to train firefighting replacements for National Guard troops now in Iraq. More than half the state's Guard members are deployed overseas. Gov. Gary Locke says he believes the state's 5,000 remaining Guard members will be able to handle whatever emergencies arise, but their response time could be slower.
Guard leaders acknowledge the need to change the way the Guard operates so some states don't have to bear the brunt of deployments.
Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau, has a plan to ensure that every state has at least half of its Guard troops at home and available for homeland security and other state missions.
"This model will ensure that no governor is left without sufficient capabilities in the state," Blum told a meeting of the National Governors' Association in February. However, he said, this "rebalancing" effort will take several years.
Until then, states will continue to rely on mutual aid agreements that allow them to get help from other states' National Guard units.
In Idaho, state officials say they're prepared, but concerned.
"You're never really certain you'll have enough manpower to deal with anything," said Mike Journee, spokesman for Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, "even at full strength."
|Troop status by state
The percentage of Army National Guard troops alerted, mobilized or deployed ranges from a 81 percent in Idaho to 5 percent in Alaska:
Source: United States General Accounting Office. Figures as of March 31.