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Hurricane Irene could test military's revamped disaster response system


This April 18, 2011 photo shows Col. Bill Zieber, center, of the Ohio National Guard as he instructs a Joint Task Force Commander training class at NORAD/Northcom headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. In classes like this the Defense Department is grooming a new type of commander to coordinate the military response to domestic disasters, hoping to save lives by avoiding some of the chaos that plagued the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort.


DENVER  — The military's efforts to help the East Coast recover from the floods and disruption caused by Hurricane Irene could test the Pentagon's new plan to avoid the chaos that plagued the response to Hurricane Katrina.

National Guard officers were appointed over the weekend as "dual-status commanders" to direct both active-duty troops and guardsmen assisting civilian officials in New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island.

Normally, active-duty personnel and state-level guardsmen report up separate chains of command to the president on one side and the state's governor on the other. That division was blamed for some of the delays, duplications and gaps after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005.

The military began training high-level Guard officers last year to command both types of troops so they can call on each side's specialties and quickly get help where it's needed.

As of Monday, no federal troops had been summoned to help, according to the National Guard Bureau, the Pentagon office that oversees the Guard. Dual-status commanders were appointed as a precaution in case federal troops were needed.

But even appointing a commander in the midst of a crisis is a first. Dual-status commanders have been used before, but always in planned events such as international summits. Irene is the first time the commanders have been appointed for a natural disaster.

The military will review how well the appointment process went, as well as any logistical and coordination issues that arise, once the military's role is done, said Bill Illing, senior analyst for military personnel for the National Guard Bureau.

Dual-status commander training is done at the U.S. Northern Command headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. Northern Command was created after the 2001 terrorist attacks to defend the U.S. homeland and help civilian authorities handle domestic crises like Irene.

Dual-status commanders require special training and authority because of legal restrictions on the use of the armed forces on U.S. soil. No one commander had that authority in the aftermath of Katrina.

The appointment of the dual-status commanders for Irene was announced by the Defense Department, but military officials said the four governors and the Defense Department made the selections jointly. That reflects the sensitivity of the question of who is in charge when active-duty troops are sent to help with a domestic crisis.

The military has said that in almost every case, a Guard officer should be in charge because of the Guard's familiarity with its home state and because the Guard is specifically trained in disaster response.

The four commanders are Brig. Gen. Carolyn Protzmann of the New Hampshire Air National Guard, Brig. Gen. Michael Swezey of the New York Army National Guard, Brig. Gen. James Trogden III of the North Carolina Army National Guard and Col. Donald Lagor of the Rhode Island Air National Guard.

Irene also represents the first major test for Northern Command's new boss, Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr. Jacoby took over this month after his predecessor, Adm. James Winnefeld, become vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Like his predecessors, Jacoby also heads the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a U.S.-Canadian command that defends the two countries from airborne threats and monitors maritime traffic off their shores.

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