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DoD Plays Key Role in Disaster Response, Official Says

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September is National Preparedness Month, a time when people across the country are encouraged to prepare for emergencies and disasters, Todd M. Rosenblum, acting assistant Secretary of Defense for homeland defense and Americas’ security affairs, said yesterday.

“National Preparedness Month is essentially about the entire nation building its preparedness to have resiliency to respond to natural or manmade disasters,” Rosenblum said.

In addition, President Barack Obama has declared September 30th as America's PrepareAthon day, a day of action for individuals, organizations and communities to prepare for six specific hazards -- earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and winter storms.

DoD’s disaster response role

“National Preparedness Month is especially important for DoD ... because DoD plays a critical role in the national response to emergency events,” Rosenblum said.

It's particularly important that DoD personnel be prepared, he said, because they may be asked to respond to a disaster while their homes or families are affected by that same disaster.

“What we have found over time is the most important thing you could do in terms of being able to respond effectively and recover quickly is to be prepared beforehand,” Rosenblum said. “For the DoD family this comes intuitively, because for us preparedness means readiness.”

Be prepared, informed

There are four elements to being prepared, he said: Be informed, make a plan, build a kit, and get involved.

Being informed means knowing what kinds of disasters may strike the area in which you live, he said. And whether that’s hurricanes, fires, flooding, earthquakes, or broader hazards like terrorism, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website can help people learn more about the hazards in their area and how to prepare for them, Rosenblum noted.

In addition to FEMA’s website, each state and many counties or local governments offer disaster planning information on their official government websites.

Have plan for emergencies

Planning for a disaster or emergency means taking into consideration your family’s unique needs so that everyone will know what they should do during an event.

Once you have a plan, you can build a toolkit so you will have the supplies you and your family need in the event you don't have power or water, or if the communication network goes down, he said.

“And finally, it is critical that everyone be involved, because preparedness, response and recovery have to involve everyone in the community, and the first responders are typically the leading edge. Many of those first responders will come from the DoD community at the base and installation level,” Rosenblum said.

DoD provides big capability

DoD has the nation’s greatest capability to respond to disasters, he said, and does so not just because it is required to under the National Response Framework, but because it is part of being a good neighbor.

The National Response Framework establishes the rules for how and when DoD and other federal agencies can contribute to the national response to disasters or emergencies. It’s part of a suite of five National Planning Frameworks that include prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery.

Typically, when the National Response Framework is activated, FEMA will request that DoD provide a certain of capability -- logistical support or generators, for example. Generally, that capability will need to be made available within the first 24 to 72 hours of an emergency -- the most critical hours, he said.

DoD’s contribution to national preparedness comes at multiple levels, Rosenblum said.

“Obviously, the mission of national defense and homeland defense is the center of our responsibility to the nation,” he noted.

Requesting federal assistance

In addition, DoD is a critical actor in support to civil authorities during emergencies, Rosenblum said. If an individual state cannot meet its emergency response needs by itself or in partnership with another state, it’ll come to the federal government for assistance, he explained.

“FEMA is typically the federal lead,” he said. “Beyond that, FEMA will often reach out to DoD to provide assistance for especially large scale events, such as we saw in Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Katrina.”

Once an emergency or disaster occurs and DoD’s help is requested, that help can take many forms, Rosenblum said. For instance, he said, installation commanders often have a mutual aid agreement with local first responders that promises the installation will provide assistance to the community in the event help is needed. Examples of how these agreements work may include a local fire department needing the help of an military installation’s fire department during a large structure fire, or when service members help fill sandbags when a neighboring community is preparing to face a flood.

Fire suppression aid

Another way DoD provides disaster and emergency response is through its support of the National Interagency Fire Center, Rosenblum said.

“That means that DoD is ready to support, when requested, federal firefighting efforts,” he said. “… Typically, the states first manage fire response, and if the fires are on federal land, then they will request support from the federal government.”

Then, in partnership with a state’s National Guard and lead federal agencies, DoD can provide assistance in fire suppression activities or in observing and identifying a fire’s movements or behavior, he added.

Hurricane Sandy disaster assistance

“Hurricane Sandy is a great example of the diversity of support DoD provides, as well as the complexity of responding to an event in a major urban area that crosses state lines,” Rosenblum said.

DoD support in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was provided at multiple levels, he explained. First, it came under the immediate response authority. “It also was provided by the Defense Logistics Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Rosenblum said. DLA has a unique capability to let large-scale and emergency contracts quickly, he said, which enabled it to provide the generators that powered the recovery effort.

“In terms of the complexity of Sandy, what we also learned when power went out, one of the critical capabilities that was lost was the ability to pump gas,” he said. Without gas, the generators couldn’t run, which meant there was no power for communications. There was also no way to move people and goods, Rosenblum added.

So, he said, the first generators were dedicated “to making sure, at the gas station and at the larger infrastructure level, that those capabilities had sustainable power supplies so they could operate and therefore we could do the more direct tasks that assisted people in recovery.”

(Follow Claudette Roulo on Twitter: @roulododnews)

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