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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Buildup Strains Public Safety

As the Pentagon deploys more reservists overseas, police and fire officials face the loss of key personnel at a time of heightened threat.

February 17, 2003|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military buildup for a possible war with Iraq is posing security concerns close to home as police forces, fire departments and other emergency services across the nation find their ranks depleted by overseas deployments of reservists.

A significant percentage of the reserve forces that make up half of the national defense also work in their civilian lives as so-called first-responders, protecting cities across America.

The overlap was not a problem in the past, when the military took the citizen-soldiers it needed in infrequent call-ups; the numbers were small and the service period short. The Pentagon has never tracked how many of the nation's 1.3 million reservists wear a second hat in the vast network of local emergency services. And many employers were not even aware that some in their ranks were moonlighting as military reservists.

But with the federal government's terrorism alert moved up to "high risk," all of that has changed. With conflicts brewing in Afghanistan, Iraq and North Korea, and peacekeepers posted in Kosovo and Bosnia, the need for troops is vast and the terms of service open-ended, putting a strain on families, businesses and communities at home.

To date, more than 150,000 National Guard and reserve soldiers have been mobilized. In California, roughly 8,000 have been called up. "It's a balancing act," said Navy Capt. Barton Buechner, a director at the National Committee for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, an organization formed to assist reservists and those who employ them. "When we structured the reserve forces and the support elements for those forces, we were not dealing with a threat to our homeland. We had not been attacked in that way prior."

Traffic Officer John Zeh, for instance, is just one of six in his department trained to inspect big rigs filled with hazardous material that roll into Lynchburg, Va., at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The job is considered vital to the war on terrorism, particularly for a community of 65,000 that sits near a nuclear facility. But for the last 18 months, Zeh has been absent, one of thousands of reserve soldiers assigned by the Pentagon to guard military detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"Are these people better off guarding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, or can they do more service to the country as police officers back in their communities?" asked Lynchburg Police Chief C.W. Bennett, who is struggling to make do with three of his most experienced officers gone or about to go. "We have to make some tough decisions about where these people can do the most good."

The Pentagon began to build up overseas deployment in December, and almost immediately police and fire departments felt the drain. Even without hard data, it became anecdotally clear that a disproportionate number of reservists were coming from public safety agencies.

"They have been hit heavily," said Col. Alan Smith, an ombudsman for the reservist support group, who listens to complaints about deployments daily. "When a local reserve unit is mobilized, the members in it most often are called up as a whole, not by ones and twos. And overnight, first-responder agencies can lose 30% of their ability to perform their regular function."

The loss of personnel to the military is just one more straw on the backs of already beleaguered agencies, several experts said.

Police and fire departments have been asked since the Sept. 11 attacks to do more with less, taking on threat assessments, providing greater police presence at vulnerable sites, training in bioterrorism, mastering radiation detection. And the expanded duties came at a time of low staffing and deep budget cuts.

A recent survey of 8,500 fire departments conducted by the International Assn. of Fire Chiefs showed nearly three-fourths have staff in the reserves -- from firefighters to the chiefs themselves.

A similar poll of more than 2,100 law enforcement agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum found that 44% have lost personnel to call-ups.

Larger organizations can compensate for the depletion in their ranks. Of the 3,000 uniformed personnel in the Los Angeles County Fire Department, for example, just 16 are reservists; seven of those have been activated and only one has shipped out, Deputy Chief Gilbert Herrera said.

Of the Los Angeles Police Department's more than 9,000 sworn officers, about 500 are in the reserves, and the department is still tallying how many have been activated, a spokesman said.

But smaller departments struggle. Officials say approximately 80% of law enforcement agencies in the country have 20 or fewer sworn officers, and the loss of one or two can leave gaps in their ability to serve their communities.

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