HomeNewsPublicationsCE MagazineDisaster Relief

CEs fulfill many roles during disaster relief


Residents of Moore, Oklahoma, survey the damage to their neighborhood after a massive 1.3-mile-wide tornado touched down May 20, 2013. Air Force civil engineers can potentially accomplish about 70 of 165 civil support tasks following natural disasters. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brandi Smith/Released) 

Cots are arranged at Shellbank Fitness Center's temporary shelter at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, as Hurricane Irene approaches the area Aug. 27, 2011. Joint Base Langley-Eustis implemented evacuations, base closures and infrastructure protection measures to mitigate storm damage at Langley AFB and Fort Eustis. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Jason J. Brown/Released)
By Lt. Col. Joel Bolina
Chief, U.S. Embassy, Mexico City, Mexico, Office of Defense Coordination, Air Force Section

     The 2013 Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support recognizes that, although the Department of Defense is always in a support role to civilian authorities for disaster response, the capacity, capabilities and training of the military mean DOD is often expected to play a prominent supporting role in response efforts. The strategy also notes that public expectations for a rapid federal response have grown in the wake of major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

     Furthermore, in his speech to the Environmental Defense Fund organization in May 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated that rising sea levels,  severe droughts, the melting of the polar ice caps,  and more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. All that said, according to a secretary of defense memorandum issued in July 2012, the DOD must plan for a complex catastrophe and enable fastest identification of DOD capabilities for complex catastrophe response.

     In light of the environmental factors, command directives associated with Defense Support of Civil Authorities, or DSCA, and public expectations for a rapid federal response: Air Force civil engineers can potentially accomplish about 70 of 165 civil support tasks.

     State authorities normally exhaust state resources, existing mutual aid agreements and Emergency Management Assistance Compacts  before requesting federal assistance. In most cases, the National Guard is the first line of response. When federal military response is requested, the Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinates federal response to a disaster and issues a request for assistance  or mission assignment  to other federal agencies, such as the DOD. Therefore, Air Force civil engineers, in the execution of defense support to civil authorities missions, can accomplish  tasks that could be requested by civilian authorities in response to a natural and/or man-made disaster.

     These capabilities were identified through an analysis using the Civil Support Task List, Universal Joint Task List, Air Force Unit Task List and various Air Force civil engineer unit type codes  and their associated mission capability  statements.

     Through a multi-tiered analysis, the use of the task lists, and consultation from subject matter experts from the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, the analysis has identified specific  civil support tasks that Air Force active-duty, reserve and Air National Guard civil engineers could  support at the request of civil authorities. From another perspective, Air Force civil engineers possess capabilities to potentially support 10 of the 15 Emergency Support Functions.

     The intent of this analysis isn't to advocate for another mission set for the Air Force civil engineer community, alter its day-to-day activities and training requirements , advocate for additional support  mission tasks for the Air Force civil engineer community, insinuate that Air Force civil engineer units should be utilized in lieu of the Army engineer units assigned to JTF-CS and an associated DCRF for CBRN and non-CBRN disasters, nor imply that the Air Force civil engineer community should increase and/or modify their existing capabilities to match all of the potential requirements that local, state or FEMA agencies may require during a complex catastrophe.

     However, what this study may result in is an opportunity for civilian agencies, such as FEMA, in coordination with the DOD, to generate new pre-scripted mission assignments  to expedite the flow of DOD resources and capabilities, should they be required; help codify which Air Force civil engineer capabilities are suited to support civil authorities; and propose a methodology that could be used by sister services to identify specific unit capabilities and their correlation to potential civil support tasks.

     For example, Air Force civil engineers are capable of providing emergency debris removal,   firefighting dozer support, urban search support, temporary electricity and fuel distribution support and logistics section support; establishing a variety of emergency shelters; and augmenting plant and pest control.

     U.S. Northern Command  can consider this full range of complementary capabilities for future civil-support missions.  It is important for USNORTHCOM to be aware of these specific capabilities,  in case local, state, federal and existing  assets are overwhelmed. Lastly, the results of this study can be utilized by defense coordinating officers and their staffs as a reference list to assist in the review and validation of requests for assistance  and/or the generation of new pre-scripted mission areas used to refine the coordination draft of the National Guard's Civil Support Task List. Sister services also can use them when conducting their own capability assessment analyses.

Editor's Note: Bolina's primary Air Force specialty is as a civil engineer, but he is serving as a regional affairs strategist for the Latin American Hemisphere. He manages both Air Force and Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief related programs in-country. This article was based on his Master of Military Art and Science thesis, "Which Air Force Civil Engineer Capabilities Can Complement USNORTHCOM's Role in Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA)?" It can be found at http://cgsc.cdmhost.com/cdm/ref/collection/p4013coll2/id/3224.