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Law authorizes mobilizing reservists to respond to natural disasters

  • Published
New authority in this year's Defense Department authorization act allows reservists in Air Force Reserve Command and other reserve components to be called to duty in response to natural disasters or emergencies in the homeland. The law also permits mobilizations for extended periods to support theater security missions around the world.

Except for a crisis involving a weapon of mass destruction, the reserves historically have been prohibited from providing a homeland disaster response.

State governors can call up the National Guard if a natural disaster is too large for civil authorities to handle. If more forces are needed - as when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005 - active-duty service members became the federal default force.

"Our reservists have been asked and often volunteer to assist after disasters hit the homeland," said Lt. Gen. Charles E. Stenner Jr., chief of Air Force Reserve and AFRC commander. "Mobilizing needed reservists will help sustain their support for longer periods and make operations more efficient. We mobilize reservists to handle contingencies overseas, so it makes sense that we do that to take care of our own country."

Air Force reservists possess special skill sets to deal with disasters. For example, Hurricane Hunters from Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., fly WC-130 reconnaissance missions into tropical storms before the destruction strikes land. After areas are swamped by storms, specially equipped AFRC C-130s can spray for harmful insects that thrive in stagnant waters. C-130 airborne firefighters from Peterson AFB, Colo., in conjunction with three Guard C-130 units, battle wildfires when commercial resources are overwhelmed.

In addition to these units, the Air Force Reserve has other reservists and aircraft to shuttle response personnel, supplies and equipment into disaster areas as well as take victims out of harm's way.

"With this new authority, we will be able to make greater contributions to our nation in times of need," Stenner said.

The inability to help communities has frustrated the chiefs of the reserve components, who see no sense in bypassing local reservists simply because they operate under federal "Title 10" authority and not state "Title 32" authority.

"In a lot of cases, there were reserve-component Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who were close at hand with the capabilities needed, but they didn't have the authority to act," said Army Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz, chief of Army Reserve. "Finally, we got the law changed. This new legislation says that now we can use Title 10 reserves."

For these forces to be used, the law specifies that the president must declare an emergency or disaster, and a state governor must request the assistance.

Under the new law, some aspects of disaster relief will not change. Civil authorities will remain the first responders. Moreover, if military support is needed, National Guard forces will be the first to step in when called by their state governor. However, if a situation also demands a federal response, reserve forces can step in to assist for up to 120 days.

In order for this new authority to work, "We just have to make sure we have the procedures and processes worked out," Stultz said.

Now, before the authority is actually needed, is the time to get that resolved, he said. "Let's not wait until a hurricane hits to say, 'How do we do it?'" he said.

Another change in the 2012 authorization act allows Title 10 reservists to be called to duty to support unnamed overseas contingencies. The reserve components have a long history of deploying members for medical, engineering and other missions to support theater engagement and security cooperation efforts. Typically, they perform these missions as part of their annual tour and on a rotational basis with reservists from other units.

"With this new authority, now we can send them down for much longer periods of time," Stultz said.

As operations wind down in Afghanistan, Stultz said, he hopes reservists will be more available to support combatant commanders' theater engagement campaigns.

A hospital unit, for example, could potentially spend three months rather than a few weeks supporting a medical mission in Central or South America, Africa or Asia. In addition, at the end of that three-month period, another reserve unit could rotate in to replace them.

This additional capability, Stultz said, would give combatant commanders far more assets to support their engagement strategies across their areas of responsibility, even at a time of dwindling resources. (From an American Forces Press Service article)