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Reserve Call-Up Drains Nation's First Responders

With the United States gearing up for a possible war against Iraq, the nation’s military reservists are getting the call to serve their country. But that call is draining the country’s supply of first responders.

Last week, the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps called up more reservists for active duty in preparation for a war with Iraq. But many of those reservists hold day jobs as firefighters, police officers, border patrol agents, prison guards and medical personnel. That means fewer people are available to respond to homeland security threats.

"There will be times when there will be fewer firefighters than there should be. That's risky, not only for the firefighters but for the people they protect," said George Burke, spokesman for the International Association of Firefighters.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, among the 414 sworn officers in the Montgomery, Ala., police department, 74 are military personnel. Of the 528 Colorado State Patrol staff, 52 are members of the reserves. In Texas, 763 prison system employees serve in the reserves or the National Guard.

In the 28,713 fire departments and 6,034 EMS departments in the United States, there are 960,000 firefighters and 830,000 emergency personnel. The nation's 15,221 law enforcement agencies consist of 710,000 officers.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, many police and fire departments have had to shuffle jobs, assign mandatory overtime and increase recruiting efforts. Many police chiefs have been forced to pay more overtime, borrow officers from other agencies and put more volunteers on the street.

States such as New York have announced programs to recruit retired police officers to fill in the gaps.

According to the Washington-D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, 44 percent of 976 law enforcement agencies surveyed last fall reported losing personnel to reservist duty.

Fiscal conditions in the nation's cities have forced one in four to cut police positions or to expect cuts in the near future, according to a recent survey of 322 cities and towns by the National League of Cities.

"It's like a triple squeeze" from higher homeland security duties, dwindling funds from state budget cuts and losing emergency personnel, said NLC spokesman Michael Reinemer.  "The reserve call-ups for some of these cities and towns is just one more blow."

At the Harrison Police Department in New Jersey, the 16-member force is already short three men and another may be called up soon. The officers work more overtime or shift schedules to cover the holes.

The police squad in Martinsburg, W.Va., lost four officers to military duty in 2001, so two Navy recruiters volunteered to patrol the streets. Tennessee's Smyrna police department lost three of its 67 officers since December and will soon lose a fourth.

Military reservists in the Clifton Park and Halfmoon Emergency Corps. in upstate New York are being called up right now. About six or seven of the 75-member volunteer and professional service are in the military.

"I don't know the likelihood of them all being activated at the same time, but if they do, that's certainly going to have an impact on us," said Captain Dan Bonesteel. Asked whether service members are willing to do whatever they can to fill in the gaps, Bonesteel said, "oh, definitely, absolutely, yes."

The nation's firehouses will be particularly hit hard.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs anticipates that about 75,000 firefighters will be lost to military call-ups within the next few months.

About 81 percent of the fire departments that responded to a recent IAFC survey said they would suffer the loss of no more than 5 percent of their overall staff; 13 percent said between 5 and 10 percent of their staffs could be depleted, while 6 percent expect that greater than 10 percent will be affected.

Firefighters will be the greatest pool of first responders affected, followed by paramedic/emergency medical service personnel. About 11 percent of the losses will involve the loss of chief fire officers. Fire chiefs cited as their top concern the loss of critical emergency skills and noted that firefighters have had to deal with more requests since Sept. 11, which has resulted in financial burden.

And with cities in budget crises, no one is really sure where money will come from to make sure citizens are protected.

"The problem is exacerbated because the economy is going to hell in a hand basket," Burke said.

States don't have enough money to fund programs they need to fund -- particularly homeland security initiatives.

"The city is in a budget crisis, and no extra manpower will be provided," one fire chief responded in the survey, while another estimated it would cost his city $40,000-$60,000 in overtime costs to replace one firefighter.

"It will cause problems with staffing and response time here in the homeland," responded another fire chief.

"The officer most likely to be called up cannot be replaced due to his training and assignments, so we can only put up with it," wrote another chief. "It is my opinion that active police officers and firefighters should be exempt from such call ups."

The International Association of Firefighters represents about 90 percent of the professional firefighters and emergency medical service personnel in the United States.

"Our people protect about 78 percent of the nation's population," Burke said, but about 10 to 15 percent of those personnel are in the military. "Our people are a patriotic lot."

"A firefighter who may be gone for a year ... that may have a tremendous impact on their ability to keep that fire department fully staffed," Burke said.

Larger fire departments should be able to absorb the losses fairly well by paying overtime and formulating alternative schedules. Fire companies often pay overtime instead of hiring new personnel because it saves money and training time.

But help may be on the way.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the United States Fire Administration in December announced the eleventh round of firefighter grant awards for 734 fire departments. The $42 million will be distributed to increase firefighting operations, enhance EMS services and other services.

President Bush's fiscal 2003 budget proposal includes $3.2 billion for a first responders grant program. That proposal is still being debated in Congress.

There are currently about 2.5 million first responders; over 151,000 reserve and National Guard troops have been activated. As of Feb. 19, the total number of reserve personnel currently on active duty for the Army was 114,141; Naval Reserve, 6,933; Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, 15,704; Marine Corps Reserve, 12,588; and the Coast Guard Reserve, 1,982.