Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

The National Guard’s Evolution Toward All-Hazards Response

After Hurricane Katrina the guard realized it had to improve its response to natural disasters, especially in California.

U.S. Army National Guard
The National Guard helped pour more than 250,000 gallons of water on the Rim Fire in California in 2013. U.S. Army National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Paul Wade

There are some pretty gnarly looking YouTube videos showing California National Guard officers dropping water on the destructive Rim Fire that burned more than 257,000 acres in California in August 2013.

On display in the videos is the kind of effort that went into combating the massive blazes and took the combined efforts of forces like the National Guard, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) and the U.S. Forest Service to quell. In all, those entities poured at least 250,000 gallons of water or retardant on the blazes. 

The videos show the result of the all-hazards and whole-community mentality that the guard has adopted more since 9/11 and especially Hurricane Katrina. The guard works alongside the California Emergency Management Agency in a state where threats of wildfires, floods and earthquakes are omnipresent.

The guard’s Joint Operations Center (JOC) near Sacramento is staffed 24/7, and on the day Emergency Management visited, staff members were tracking a system that turned out to be the devastating Typhoon Haiyan that killed more than 6,000.

The JOC is a modern operations center, and guard personnel can drill down into areas affected by a potential disaster and obtain a great degree of situational awareness. For example, if there’s an earthquake in the Bay Area, the guard can locate personnel in the area and within 15 minutes know which soldiers will and will not be recallable.

“Google Earth allows us, with our layers and feeds that we leverage from Northcom [U.S. Northern Command in Colorado], existing relationships and mutual aid agreements, and pull up layers such as Caltrans to see what traffic is like,” said Maj. Brandon Hill. “We can use these layers and the ability we have with personnel in the JOC to push someone in the area, whether it’s [guardsmen] from out of state, local first responders or military.”

Like this story? If so, subscribe to Emergency Management’s weekly newsletter.

“During the Rim Fire, you’d have seen this room fill up with our aviation assets, our Cal Fire partners and others,” said Maj. Dan Bout. “We had Army aviation and Air National Guard aviation assets, including their liaison officers, right here at these stations providing information to us so the decision-makers can say, ‘We need to put more assets on the south side of the fire’ or whatever that incident commander from Cal Fire or the U.S. Forest Service needed.”

During the Rim Fire last August, Black Hawk helicopters manned with guardsmen dropped 660-gallon buckets of water on the fire, something that the guard trains for regularly. That all-hazards training came after Katrina when the guard realized it had to improve natural disaster response.

Col. Wesley L. McClellan, deputy director of J-3 operations, said the biggest change that came from 9/11 and Katrina was training to support civil authorities. He said the training led to partnerships and helped “bridge federal-state planning efforts, promote mutual understanding and enhance unity of effort.”

During an event, the guard will be on alert in the JOC until a mission-tasking request is made. Guardsmen track the event, do predictive analysis, maintain situational awareness and are in constant communication with partners in preparation for a formal request. “During the Rim Fire when we had all the state’s fixed-wing and rotary-wing assets already committed, they recognized that gap, turned to the National Guard and said, ‘We need X number of rotary-wing aircraft and so on,”’ Bout said.

Tracking an event and maintaining situational awareness is key to being ready when the call comes. “They’re busy. We’re not calling them, saying, ‘Do you need us?’ We’re doing that predictive analysis and saying, ‘We think they’re going to run out of resources,’ which means we’re next in line to get a phone call for aviation assets, or soldiers and airmen to help out,” Bout said.

“We have a close working relationship with the National Guard,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Office of Emergency Services. “I have liaisons here 24/7, and we share information on joint priorities. The National Guard provides support for all of the agencies, predominantly public safety, but depending on the situation, the National Guard is a force multiplier. They’re the governor’s army, so they are — through my office — tasked to do a multitude of support, whether it’s aircraft transporting people or getting boots on the ground.”

There are more than 20,000 guardsmen in the state, most based in high-population areas like the Bay Area and Southern California. There are also smaller units, called armories, of about 120-150 personnel in some of the state’s less populated areas as part of more than 200 guard installations.

The guard is prepositioned, physically and otherwise, to respond to most scenarios. “We have a lot of priority intelligence requirements based on seasons,” Hill said. “We’re entering a flood season, so there are different layers, such as river gauges and weather feeds, that we monitor.”

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.

Featured Resources