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.

by / March 14, 2014
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.”

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“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.”

In addition to blazes, the fire season also brings the second and third effects of flooding and mudslides, and the guard must be ready to respond to those. That’s where predictive analysis comes into play. “Instead of having a knee-jerk reaction, we know it’s coming based on what was happening in the JOC,” Bout said.

Part of avoiding a knee-jerk reaction is getting “socialized” to any response that might be necessary. That means practice. Once a year, reservists drill to see if they’re up to a major response. They test everything, including their fitness, if radios work, if they’ll have food and water for three days, and if the administrative tasks are taken care of.

“It’s not as simple as putting in a call because these are reservists,” Bout said. “That’s one thing California prides itself on. By practicing, coming up with a system and then vetting that system, we have the ability to respond that doesn’t exist in a lot of other National Guards.”

In a state as diverse as California, the focus must be on all hazards, and the guard must be ready to respond to many possibilities on short notice. “If you’re on the East Coast, your predominant emergency is going to be a hurricane, where it’s all hands on deck, the disaster’s coming and you have advance notice,” said Hill. “In California the things we’re looking at are no-notice.”

Hill said the response is similar to any guard response but more flexible and diverse. “We don’t want to be limited,” he said. “We have plans for every major catastrophe in California you can think of.” Redundancy is important too since the JOC is in a flood plain. “We even have our own internal plans if this building gets flooded. We have an alternate location in Fresno.”

The signal to respond comes as a tasking request from the state’s Office of Emergency Services. The guard will have been monitoring the situation at the JOC, prepping to deploy assets. The smaller, 150-man units can be deployed within six hours and are generally moving within two or three hours of the request.

“That’s six hours,” Hill said. “That doesn’t mean we sit in the JOC at three in the morning and wait. I have the authority at two in the morning to make that call to the company commander and say, ‘Alert, recall your forces to your armory.’ They’ll have six hours to marshal a certain number of personnel, vehicles, etc., and then depart. I can give initial guidance and say, ‘Get down to Oakland and link up with the EOC, here’s your point of contact, go.”’ That call may go out several ways — high-frequency radio, email, alert systems, the Everbridge notification system or by phone.

The larger, 500-man units can be deployed in 12 hours, depending on the location in the state. Onsite, personnel are staged in a process called Joint Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration (JRSOI). “Instead of flooding people, that’s what JRSOI prevents,” Bout said. “It’s a processing point and puts them in the theater and keeps track of them.”

A tiered response will let a unit get to the site, establish command and control, and provide early eyes and ears on the situation. If guard and military personnel from other states are called in, they’ll all be under the management of a dual-status commander.

Dual-status command was another initiative that came out of Katrina, where 70,000 soldiers showed up in force, but there was no chain of command. Each state now has a dual-status commander, who’s in charge of both National Guard and active-duty personnel.  

“We moved to the dual-status commander concept fast and that’s been a great thing,” Ghilarducci said. “We introduced a concept called the California military coordinating officer, which is equivalent to the federal DCO [defense coordinating officer], but on the state side and that rolls into liaison and support much like the federal DCO does with FEMA. No other place in the country has this yet.”

The dual-status command structure was used successfully during Hurricane Sandy, where state and federal personnel worked under the same chain of command and helped local first responders deliver 6 million meals and more than 8 million gallons of unleaded and diesel fuel.

The structure also helps with the whole-community approach the guard has embraced since Katrina. “Along with 9/11, Katrina was one of those pivotal domestic incidents that highlighted the critical importance of pre-incident planning, shared situational awareness and interagency coordination,” McClellan said.

Most states don’t have a 24/7 JOC. But California is unique and so is the guard’s ability (much like Florida and New York) to do water search and rescues. Every few months the guard is deployed for maritime service. For instance, the guard was recently asked to help with a rescue 1,300 miles off the San Diego coast. It was out of the Coast Guard’s reach, and the Air Force couldn’t support the mission. The guard flew two aircraft from Moffett Airfield in the Bay Area, assisted a Chinese fishing vessel, then handed it over to the Coast Guard.

“That’s something we’d quarterback here in the JOC with our supporting units throughout the state,” Hill said. In fact, he said, the guard responds to a search and rescue or other emergency every three days or so. They also provide shelter for the homeless at armories throughout the state at different times of the year. It’s all part of the guard’s new community mentality.

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