Exporting Our "First Responders": Local Police and Emergency Personnel Man the Front Lines of "Homeland Defense"-Yet Tens of Thousands Have Been Sent to Fight Overseas. (Law Enforcement)

Article excerpt

"The country's security comes first when the country reaches out and says we need your skills to fight this war," explained Army Reservist Jim Howatson, a captain in the Tacoma, Washington, police department. "There's no question that's where you're going to go."

But Ed Troyer, another law enforcement officer in Washington, wonders if fighting the war on terrorism abroad will leave us dangerously vulnerable at home. "When you decimate a police department, that's going to affect the safety of people at home, because there's a good chance the war is going to be fought on our soil as well," the Pierce County police detective told Seattle's KOMO-TV last January. "And if terrorists are going to be here, we need to keep our people to combat that here at home."

Across the nation, "local police and fire departments ... will face a loss of personnel [as] the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps mobilize reserve units to provide troop and logistical support," noted a November 25, 2002 UPI report. Long before the invasion of Iraq began, the Pentagon understood that the war would require activating "a substantial number of police officers and firefighters who are part-time soldiers, leaving local officials to figure out how to fill the gaps in their ranks at a time when bridges, power plants, and other potential terrorist targets need protection.

Randy Bruegman, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, told ABC News on January 25th: "We're going to lose upwards of 75,000 firefighters over the next several months with the reserve call-up. Those called up for war duty overseas tend to be veteran firefighters with critical skills that would be needed in the event of a terrorist attack at home." "We may be extracting the one person who is the hazardous materials specialist out of a community, or the one person who has been involved with terrorism response over the course of the last two or three years," Bruegman observes.

In 29 states, reported ABC, "between 5 percent and 10 percent of the [police] troopers belong to the National Guard or Reserves--and could be called up." "It's not just the sheer numbers that we're losing, but it's the experience that goes with those numbers," observed Chattanooga police Chief Jimmie L. Dotson, a Vietnam veteran. "You are looking at people who are averaging anywhere from five to 10 years of experience in the policing profession and you don't make up that experience overnight."

Losing experienced officers has devastated many police agencies in smaller communities. "For the smaller departments, one person being gone really impacts that department," comments Hampton, New Hampshire, Police Chief Bill Wrenn. Filling the gap often means either paying overtime--or reducing police coverage. "Those departments are losing people and, with the economic climate being what it is, it's hard to find money to fill the slots," observes George DiBlasi of the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association.

Numbers and Experience

The lack of street-savvy, experienced local police is a national security liability at a time when officers across the nation are the first defense against another terrorist attack. While Chief Dotson understands and respects the decision of many police officers who enlist in the Guard and Reserves, he notes: "We still have to cover and secure our home turf"--something that local police, fire, and emergency response agencies, already over-stretched and under-funded, may be unable to do if and when the "other shoe" drops.

Chief Dotson points out that experience (which is difficult to quantify) matters more than numbers in assessing the impact of the reserve call-up. Still, the numbers tell a dramatic and troubling story.

As of February 12th, according to a Gannett News Service analysis, "16 percent of all reservists and National Guard troops have been called to active duty" nationwide. "17 states and Puerto Rico have had 20 percent or more of their Guard troops and reservists mobilized," observed the GNS report. …