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Preparation Is Key to Disaster Response

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

CARTAGENA, Colombia, Dec. 3, 1998 – The armed forces have the skills, tools and know-how to get life back on track in a hurry following a natural disaster or terrorist attack, according to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

"Terror inflicted by the unbridled forces of nature and terror inflicted by the unprincipled forces of evil -- these are the two types of terrorism which we have to confront in our daily lives," Cohen said Dec. 1 to defense officials gathered here Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 for the Defense Ministerial of the Americas. Military help in these situations is indispensable, the secretary said.

Representatives from the Western Hemisphere's 34 democracies attended the conference, designed to strengthen military cooperation. Addressing the group, Cohen stressed the role the military can play in dealing with natural disasters and transnational terrorism.

"The fact that we have disciplined officers and service members who can carry out orders and react under very stressful circumstances will be terribly important," Cohen said. "Our military personnel train under duress. They have clear command and control lines. They are highly disciplined. They are expert in operational planning and logistics."

The military has the communications, transportation, engineering, medical and other assets needed to deal with catastrophic damage, he said.

Constant preparation is key to a swift, organized response, Cohen stressed. Citing a joint disaster response exercise and a hurricane relief exercise conducted in Guatemala before Hurricane Mitch hit, he said, "That preparation resulted in the savings of hundreds, if not thousands, of lives."

The role of the military in fighting natural disasters and in fighting terrorism is similar, Cohen said. "The training, equipment, the expertise -- all of that needs to be fully integrated in a well-thought-out plan so we can combat these two threats to our societies," he remarked.

Cohen advised regional counterparts to determine ahead of time how to mesh their armed forces' capabilities with those of local police and emergency personnel. "There is no one rule," he said. "There is no 'one size fits all.' A plan that might work for the United States doesn't necessarily work for another country."

In the United States, he explained, the armed forces focus on external national security concerns while the National Guard deals with domestic issues. When tragedy strikes, as it did at the Oklahoma City federal building, the Guard and other specialized military units work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local police and fire departments.

Determining who's going to be the boss is a big issue in these situations, Cohen noted. "When you have an act of terrorism, who's in charge? Is it the local police? Is it the mayor? Is it the state or federal government?" U.S. officials are trying to come to grips with jurisdictional lines, he added.

Although the number of terrorist acts has actually decreased, Cohen said, "the level of lethality is on the rise. And that is especially true when it comes to dealing with chemical and biological weapons. That is the threat that all of us are likely to face in the future."

Again, he said, preparations are key, and they go beyond having ready, capable military forces. "If there is an act of terrorism involving a chemical or biological agent, how do you identify it? How do you know what your population has just been hit with?" he asked.

In the United States, he said, the Defense Department is helping to train the people most likely to respond first to a crisis -- police, firemen, doctors and nurses.

Regional cooperation will help deter the threat of transnational terrorism, Cohen said. "What we need most of all is to have an understanding that we must share intelligence about terrorist activities," he said.

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