Training both domestic and foreign civil defense and first responder organizations and active uniformed services to prepare for and respond to natural and man-made disasters, including major disease outbreaks, has become a significant part of the mission for the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, National Guard, and reserves.
While little specialized individual or unit training is required for domestic or international military disaster response efforts – which involve the same equipment and tasks used in their regular missions – it has become an increasingly important part of international training exercises.
Every operational military unit receives medical training as part of its individual and unit qualifications. If personnel are being deployed to a known hazardous health environment, more advanced training and equipment are provided that typically are not available to all units. Officials say they are working to increase response capabilities in such environments in the future, not just with small numbers of personnel but also to be able to operate on a sustained basis.
Looking at the equipment and training needed to support that effort is an ongoing initiative. Each uniformed service shares best practices with the others as well as with non-military agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), etc.
“DOD [the Department of Defense] doesn’t really work unilaterally with state and local officials domestically nor with other countries, although the COCOM [combatant commander] with that geographic responsibility will have some security and human assistance agreements they may work through that country’s military or ministry of health, for both pre- and post-disaster. But most of the time, DOD deals with another U.S. federal agency as part of a coordinated response,” according to Thomas LaCrosse, director of Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security.
Many routine FEMA requests for DOD help with a domestic disaster can be approved by the COCOM, which usually is U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) for the continental United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) for those in the Pacific. More complex requests require authorization from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), which could be the secretary, an OSD specialist, or a service secretary, the decision on whom is made by OSD subject-matter experts. All FEMA requests receive fiscal and legal reviews before assistance is approved.
Foreign disaster relief typically falls into two categories, LaCrosse said:
“Steady State Humanitarian Assistance – Helping other countries with their ability to prepare for disasters, so when we have to go there, we have a partner or what we already have done there has made that country more capable of handling everything on their own. The Philippines typically falls into the latter, for example.
“Standard Disaster Relief – Tied very closely to USAID’s [U.S. Agency for International Development] Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which typically calls on DOD assistance for about 10 percent of the international disasters it tracks.
“For the first half of 2016, we received 48 requests for domestic assistance – 19 from FEMA, six from HHS, and nine from the National Interagency Fire Center, plus about a dozen from other sources, such as the political conventions, UN events, even the Rio Summer Olympics. Not every domestic emergency or disaster will require a DOD response.”
While little specialized individual or unit training is required for domestic or international military disaster response efforts – which involve the same equipment and tasks used in their regular missions – it has become an increasingly important part of international training exercises, according to John Trigilio, director of Humanitarian Assistance and Response Operations in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict.
“More and more military exercises include a humanitarian element, taking unique capabilities we have ‘off the shelf.’ Those often are done in cooperation with USAID and [the Department of] State,” he said. “OHDACA [Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster, and Civic Aid] also funds humanitarian anti-mine activities out of my office.”