Monday, Sept. 18, 2006 | There’s ambiguity when it comes to gauging how the military’s presence here impacts the region’s overall safety in the event of a natural or manmade disaster.

Should an earthquake, wildfire, tsunami or other natural disaster strike the region, changes to the federal rules governing military interaction with civilian governments – updated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – give the armed forces more leeway in aiding local response and recovery efforts. That helps make San Diego’s civilian population safer.

But the region’s various military assets could pose a tempting option for terrorists looking to make a political statement. With several large bases and naval vessels interwoven into the fabric of San Diego, they could put the surrounding civilian community at greater risk.

“They’re a double edged-sword,” said Jill Olen, the deputy chief operating officer of public safety and homeland security for the city of San Diego, which hosts one of the highest concentrations of military forces in the world.

Military and civilian officials are engaged in an ongoing effort to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of having armed forces and their resources in the region. But some of those efforts are still in their infancy and there are signs that there’s still a long way to go.

A report prepared earlier this year by Olen’s office found that the region’s military installations aren’t necessarily the beacons of safety that they are often thought to be.

“Contrary to commonly held perceptions, a large military presence does not automatically strengthen the host city’s security,” the report states. “These forces are very visible, and given the past precedent of terrorist attacks against military targets, make San Diego a prime terrorist target.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment.

Several local disaster preparedness officials said they think terrorists are more likely to focus on poorly defended civilian targets like shopping malls and mass transit vehicles in hopes of inspiring lasting fear amongst the general population.

Still others say that the presence of high-profile military installations in the region may benefit potential civilian targets by drawing a terrorist’s attention away from them.

Nonetheless, the report, which was issued nine months ago and details the city of San Diego’s planning efforts for a Katrina-style catastrophic event, paints a grim picture of the existing relationship between military and civilian authorities.

“Local federal military assistance to civilian authorities planning and execution … is inadequate to meet the needs of a major catastrophic event,” the report found.

Additionally, the report states that although training and exercise efforts with the military are progressing from “a very basic stage to a more comprehensive and seamless program,” the city has yet to develop the capability to plan for, or execute, a catastrophic event exercise.

The report was prepared after the Department of Defense issued new directives governing how and when the military is permitted to assist civilian authorities.

Under the prior guidelines, a call for military assistance from local governments was passed up the jurisdictional chain of command to the county, the region, the state and then to federal officials. The new directives make it easier for military officials to offer their resources and result in less red tape for a civilian government requesting assistance.

Robert Welty, director for homeland security projects with San Diego State University’s Research Foundation, said that the implications of the new directives are just beginning to be fully understood.

“The military is becoming more and more known by the civilian community as something that we can tap into if we need to,” said Welty, who studies how to foster better interactions between local government and military officials in a time of crisis.

“It’s a dramatic change in the status,” said Eric Frost, who serves as a co-director of SDSU’s center for homeland security. “It provides a vehicle for a local government to ask for something and the military to provide it whereas before they couldn’t, not because they didn’t want to, but because the law prevented it.”

Last month, local military and government officials gathered at a conference hosted by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, to discuss those possibilities under the new arrangements. For many in attendance, it was their first time meeting their counterparts from the local military and civilian worlds.

It may sound simple, but Frost said that human relationships and social networking are at the heart of the ability of local governments and the military to collaborate when a disaster occurs.

“It kind of sounds dumb in a sense but we have just never thought about the military as an asset,” said Walter Amedee, National City’s homeland security manager.

While the directives open new avenues of cooperation, national defense remains the military’s top priority. Government officials from around the region recognize that they’ll only benefit from resources, like helicopters, manpower and technology that aren’t critical to the military’s larger missions.

“You can’t count on [the military] as an asset,” said Augie Ghio, chief of the San Miguel Fire District and the city of San Diego’s former homeland security director. “You would be remiss if you do.”

With that in mind, Olen said that since the report was completed, the city has improved its abilities to take advantage of local military resources.

“I’m starting my own push with the city of reengaging the Navy and the Marines,” Olen said. “What we are doing is going out and visiting them and seeing what resources they have, what their plans are, how can we help them, how can they help us.”

Olen’s drive is part of an ongoing effort that mirrors those of other civilian governments throughout the region, Frost said, noting that local governments have participated in several joint exercises with the military over the past year.

In addition to training exercises, many first responders across the county have established agreements with their nearby military counterparts to provide aide and assistance on a regular basis.

National City and Oceanside both have agreements allowing them to give and get assistance from the federal fire departments that service Naval Station San Diego – also known as the 32nd Street Naval Station – and Camp Pendleton, respectively. The county coordinates a hazardous material emergency response team with Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and the California Department of Forestry has helped train military helicopter pilots in the event their needed during a wildfire.

But it seems that there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Olen said the city has lost track of the agreements it has with various military commands and other local government agencies to provide aid in the event that either entity’s emergency services are overwhelmed.

“Right now I’m trying to get a better handle on what [agreements] exist and with who and what they cover,” Olen said. “I’m not entirely sure what they are or what the terms of them are or if they are still valid.”

Amedee said he doesn’t have an emergency contact at the neighboring Navy base and would rely on the county’s Office of Emergency Services to contact Navy officials in the event of an emergency.

And both Olen and Amedee say their respective cities don’t regularly train for disaster preparedness with the military.

“As far as I know, we haven’t participated or been involved with any exercises if something happens on the base,” said Amedee.

That’s all something that Frost and Welty hope will change.

San Diego is “a little island unto ourselves,” Frost said. “If something happens, it’s going to be a little while until somebody gets to us so you have to work with the people who are here.”

Please contact Daniel Strumpf directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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