Tuesday, September 20, 2005 | As the United States fights its global war on terrorism and battles bloody insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the California National Guard has a quarter of its troops serving overseas.
Overseas deployments are nothing new. California National Guardsmen were sent in 1898 to the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. But in the wake of the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, new questions are being asked about the role of the nation’s home-grown guardians.
What role would the National Guard play following a catastrophic disaster in San Diego? To what extent have local emergency services and disaster preparedness agencies made arrangements for such a role? With so many of the state’s National Guard currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, are there enough troops to handle a Katrina-esque crisis in this city?
The California National Guard’s mission statement, as defined by the force’s commander, Adjutant General Maj. Gen. William H. Wade II, outlines two primary goals for the force:
“Provide mission ready forces to the federal government and protect the public safety of the citizens of California by providing military support to civil authorities during natural disasters and other emergencies.”
Although the overall objective of the force – protection of the country – has not fundamentally changed over time, recently there have been shifts in the day-to-day running of the organization, said Maj. Jon Siepmann, a California National Guard spokesman.
“What’s changed is the execution of our mission, not the mission,” said Siepmann. “We did go from an organization that primarily executed emergency response operations and civil support missions, to an organization which now, very frequently, conducts operations overseas in support of the global war on terror.”
That means less California National Guard troops stationed in California. Indeed, currently there are almost 6,000 of the force’s troops stationed outside the state, the majority of those in Iraq. That represents more than 25 percent of the guard’s total force of 20,000 personnel. It’s also more troops than have been sent out of state in at least the last 15 years, according to figures provided by Siepmann.
Couple the substantial proportion of California National Guard troops sent out of state with a sharp decline in recruitment for the force, and experts on homeland security estimate that there are probably less guard troops in California now than at any time since the Vietnam War.
The obvious conclusion that could be drawn from these facts is that San Diegans may be short-changed in an emergency.
That appears not to be the case, however, according to local officials.
Emergency services personnel in San Diego are not concerned about the reduction in National Guard troops. They say the city has backups upon backups to protect its people from the effects of earthquakes, fires, tsunamis and other natural disasters.
The California National Guard is a long way down the chain of responders, say local officials, and it is unlikely to be called upon except in the most extreme circumstances.
Broadly speaking, San Diego’s approach to disaster preparedness is one of self-sufficiency, said Augie Ghio, the city’s director of homeland security.
“One of the things we learned in the Cedar Fire was that we have to be self-prepared at the local level,” said Ghio. “We can’t depend on military assets. If they’re there, great, we’re going to use them. But if there’s other things going on, the local jurisdiction – this county – has to be prepared to take care of itself.”
The city of San Diego’s emergency contingency plans are an enormous beast to try to pin down. Various city and state agencies have worked with the fire department, police department and other emergency services to develop strategies for different emergency scenarios.
In addition to city- and county-wide plans, San Diego emergency services also work hand-in-hand with emergency responders from all over the state as part of a strategy called “Mutual Aid.” This agreement, which has been in place since 1950, means that every county in California can count on the others for support in times of crisis.
That means the California National Guard is not high on anybody’s list of people to call in an emergency.
John Jondall, assistant fire chief for the San Diego Fire Department, would find himself high on the chain of command were there to be a natural disaster in San Diego. He would head up the department’s Office of Emergency and would be one of the city’s point men during a crisis.
He said he has “absolutely no idea” what role the California National Guard would play in aiding him in such a scenario. Does that concern him? No.
“Unless it’s a situation where the whole state is being inundated with fires, like it was three years ago, there’s always been plenty of resources to go around,” said Jondall. “We’ve always been able to get all the resources we need through the Mutual Aid system.”
Jondall’s comments were echoed by Mike Workman, a spokesman for San Diego County’s Office of Disaster Preparedness. He explained that communication directly between the county and the National Guard is rare, largely because it’s unlikely that the National Guard would be needed in anything but the worst disaster.
“From a disaster-planning standpoint, when we look at this, National Guard is way down there on the list,” he said. “Obviously, on today’s headlines, it’s a lot higher, but when you look at disaster planning here, National Guard is way down the list.”
Workman agrees that Hurricane Katrina changed things in disaster planning circles. However, he said that there are many differences between California and Louisiana in terms of their preparedness for a large-scale natural disaster.
Calling California’s disaster planning “the model for disaster planning for the rest of the country,” he stressed that even a huge earthquake or devastating fire could probably be taken care of by local authorities, without much need for intervention by the federal government.
Ghio was quick to point out that San Diego’s strong military presence means there are a number of active-duty military personnel that would be quick to mobilize in times of crisis. Local Navy, Marines and Army units could always be brought in to help civil authorities, he said, thus reducing the need for National Guard intervention.
Even assuming that the emergency services officials are being wildly optimistic about their ability to control a crisis, Siepmann said the California National Guard still has more than enough troops to weigh in should they be needed.
He pointed to the largest deployment of guard troops in recent history – a deployment of 12,000 to control civil disturbance in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots – as evidence that the 14,000 troops still stationed in California are adequate.
All the emergency services representatives interviewed agreed.
Despite the increased proportion of California National Guard soldiers being sent to assist in missions out of state and even overseas, those in the know say those who remain are more than able to do the job they may be called on to do.
San Diegans can only hope they’re right.
Please contact Will Carless directly at