We can do more for the first responders who risk everything

We can do more for the first responders who risk everything
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The images fascinate and appall us, unless it’s our own lives and homes being flooded, burned down and destroyed. 

Across the world epic disasters such as hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria are growing in scale and intensity demanding battalions of skilled first responders. At the same time Canada and the Western U.S. have been battling fierce forest fires amplified by a weeklong record-breaking heat wave in California that included 106 degrees in San Francisco where the fog that usually obscures the city was replaced by a thick haze from the wildfires. The same heat wave set off the largest urban wildfire in L.A.’s history challenging firefighters ability to respond.

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No one has any doubt that first responders are heroes. We see their bravery in the helicopter, swift water and urban rescues in flooded, hurricane-shattered communities. We know the danger air tanker and “hot shot” wild land firefighters of the West face, including the 19 who died in Arizona four years ago.

 

These disaster warriors need greater recognition and institutional support as they increasingly risk their lives and sometimes pay the ultimate price facing new and deadly threats in a world that is hotter, more crowded and more interdependent than ever before.

For thousands of years warfare has been the main rite of passage by which young men proved themselves as heroes and warriors with the survivors going on to become the leaders of our clans, tribes and nations. But today’s new threat matrix of disaster is proving at least as challenging as other guys with guns. 

In the future our warriors and leaders may increasingly come from the ranks of young women and men willing to go in harm’s way to confront an expanding number of often unpredictable catastrophes in dangerous settings from the heart of our major cities to the most remote ocean atolls. Specialized first responders, along with multi-mission agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard and FEMA are already on the frontlines of disaster, only with too few people and limited material resources. 

One way to shore up this new warrior class would be by creating the incentives to recruit and deploy more frontline fighters in far greater numbers. Most elite federal wild lands “hot shot” firefighters for example, are considered seasonal employees by the U.S. Forest Service, without the year-round pay and long-term benefits, including health benefits, guaranteed any newly minted Army private. At the same time, while recognizing this challenge, the USFS lacks the funding to do anything about it. 

The Coast Guard with 40,000 active duty members and growing global missions could easily be expanded to the size of the Marine Corps with its fighting force of 180,000. When responding to the Haiti earthquake seven years ago, 10 of its 12 aging patrol cutters suffered breakdowns, two requiring major dry dock repairs. Still, even while massively under-resourced they managed to carry out over 10,000 rescues during the recent hurricanes while restoring port operations within days.

FEMA, which has matured in its disaster response leadership since its abysmal failure during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, can now call on some 6,000 members from 28 Urban Search and Rescue Teams based within local fire departments around the nation. But with their increased deployments to “out of area events” straining municipal resources there may soon be a need for the establishment of full-time national units with dog and drone capabilities plus federal funding for more local units.

With the World’s largest military the U.S. is also starting to project more non-lethal “soft power” repurposing its armed warriors by, for example, participating in a “Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking” in Africa, sending Army crews with high water vehicles to rescue people from Hurricane Harvey flooding, sending Marines to the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Irma, stationing a Navy carrier off Key West and now post-Maria launching initial emergency supply aircraft and damage assessment flights over Puerto Rico while also providing C-130 Hercules aircraft to fight the wildfires in the West. 

While visiting the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island training off the coast of southern California, I saw how along with war fighting it can work to provide Marine Corps security, emergency air transport, floating hospital services and large-scale desalinization for fresh water making during disasters in or near the world’s coastlines.

“We like to sell our soft side because people think we just break things,” a Marine Colonel explained to me with a wolfish grin. 

I first witnessed this soft-power in action when the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima docked on the New Orleans waterfront after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. its deck acted as a mobile emergency airfield while it also provided dry berthing, air conditioning, showers and meals for thousands of National Guardsmen and relief workers.

The Iwo Jima also joined the Abraham Lincoln off the badly impacted Florida Keys for several days after Irma struck. Expect to see a Navy task force off Puerto Rico soon. Also expect to see more “soft power” projection as multi-billion dollar extreme weather events, such as Katrina, Rita, Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Maria multiply and scale up as has been documented by NOAA and as this same pattern of climate chaos repeats itself across the planet following the three hottest years in recorded history, 2014, 2015 and 2016. 

Just as we forward stage and warehouse military equipment in Kuwait and elsewhere for unexpected combat operations and FEMA places emergency supplies of food, water and bedding around the country, appropriate reconstruction supplies should also be pre-positioned near major ports and infrastructure such as LA-Long Beach. This will ensure rapid return to operation in the wake of major disasters like an earthquake that could threaten global trade and security, including national security. Burying power lines in storm prone areas and decentralizing the power grid with solar and other systems would also help.

As Congress faces our recent natural disasters, lawmakers must direct more funding for focused disaster response organizations and capabilities located within the Coast Guard, NOAA, FEMA, CDC, the U.S. Forest Service and elsewhere.

As Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have demonstrated along with our ongoing wildfires and other extreme events it is going to be a very rough transition to a more secure, sustainable world, if we can manage that. Such an effort can be greatly enhanced by providing the resources, logistics and new policy directions needed to rapidly grow the ranks of our specialized first responders and by recognizing that not all our frontline warriors need be soldiers.

David Helvarg is an author and the executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation and policy group. Among his books is “Rescue Warriors – The U.S. Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes.”