Both U.S. civil defense of the past and homeland security of the present demonstrate that disaster policy has always had a degree of national security and military penetration. However, few appreciate how dramatic the latest penetration of military and national security matters has been in American emergency and public management. There are both positives and negatives associated with ramping up militarization and national security presence in emergency management specifically, and public management more generally.

Since 1950, each presidents national security policy has involved civil defense or homeland security in some manner. In times when civil defense against nuclear attack (1950-1991) was the federal emergency management priority, much of disaster policy was imposed from the top-down in the federal system. Remember, emergency management in the United States is supposed to be from the bottom-up, with local governments seeking supplemental help from their state government and the federal government. The Clinton administration (1993-2001) made possible a temporary respite from civil defense worries when the Cold War ended, although foreign terrorism against the U.S. homeland was not yet recognized outside of national security circles as a major threat.


Following the 9/11/2001 terror attacks, U.S. disaster policy became a top-down, president- and federal-dominated system. State and municipal governments today carry a considerable portfolio of national security-related dutiesmany implemented through homeland security grant programs. Conditions specified in the law and grant rules of federal homeland security programs have significant effects on the substance and process of federal, state, and local emergency management specifically, and public management more generally.

Homeland security has militarized the disaster policy and emergency management, but sociological research has demonstrated that the military culture and the civilian

culture are highly incompatible. Homeland security has come to Main Street, and federal emergency management is the chief vehicle transporting it.

In some respects, modern homeland security policy builds on those areas where there is a positive overlap and compatibility of domestic emergency management and terrorism consequence management. Anti-terror emergency management and conventional disaster management may actually complement each other better today than during the Cold War of 1946-1990 because of the range of weapons and instruments potentially available to modern terrorists and the damage these might cause. Admittedly, this claim is subject to dispute.

Military Involvement in Emergency Management

James Miskel, a student of military and national security studies and an expert on emergency management, points to many examples of U.S. military involvement in response to domestic disasters (Miskel, 2006: 39). Here are a few examples of positive overlap of military and civilian emergency:

  • Preparation for hazardous materials incidents overlaps much of the preparation for chemical weapons and bioterrorism preparedness.
  • Preparedness and response planning for a major urban earthquake parallels some elements of preparedness and response planning for the detonation of a low-yield nuclear weapon in a large metropolitan area.
  • Hurricane evacuation planning dovetails civil evacuation planning for dirty bomb incidents.

Certainly there are many other examples. Miskel (2006: 41) posits that one of the underlying and enduring assumptions of the U.S civil defense program was that much of the investment in civil defense would improve the nations capacity for responding to natural disasters. An interesting question today is whether the same can be said for U.S. homeland security programs.

The military has heft and diversification. Active duty military personnel and National Guard soldiers represent an immensely large workforce. There are approximately 1.1 million people on active duty military service and more than 1 million National Guard members and reservists who may be called to duty. Moreover, the U.S. Coast Guard, now under the Department of Homeland Security, is entrusted with a large portfolio of emergency management-related functions and activities, including oil and hazardous material response on the water or along the coastline, marine safety, and water search and rescue.

In addition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has, for some two centuries, been directly or indirectly involved in the business of emergency management through the vast system of dams and other flood control works it builds and operates. The corps manages reservoirs and water impoundments for not only flood control, but also drought prevention, emergency potable water supply, and dredging to keep shipping channels navigable. The corps manages a massive assortment of public infrastructure, including bridges, ports, lock systems, and coastal barriers, and aids in marine navigation.

Reasons for Greater Military Involvement in Disaster Response

There are a variety of reasons in favor of increasing the role of the military in disaster response, including:

  • The military offers a classic and strictly delineated command-and-control structure for managing its people.
  • The military possesses, and regularly perfects, its vast and sophisticated logistical and communications systems.
  • The military manifests a strong organizational and managerial framework and a high level of efficiency and personal accountability that is difficult to match in many civilian agency-led disaster responses.
  • Military and naval resourcessuch as planes, helicopters, ships, amphibious vehicles, and watercraft for rescue, as well as tents, compacted food supplies, and medicinesare often unmatched at the state and local civilian levels.
  • When the military is deployed to an area of disaster devastation, it often has the capacity to deploy as a self-sustaining entity that will not compete for housing, shelter, food and water, transportation, power generation, and medical facilities.
  • The military is able to provide security following the most catastrophic and destabilizing events, thus serving as a multiplier of civilian law enforcement resources.
  • The U.S. National Guard and active duty military personnel are trained to follow orders, to operate in the field for extended periods, to move into hazard zones with enough equipment to sustain themselves independently for considerable periods, and to put themselves in harms way.

Conversely, the militarys advantages reflect civilian emergency management disadvantages. For example, with the exception of police and firefighters, government civil servants, often dedicated to their work in valiant ways, cannot be expected to enter danger zones that pose a significant risk to their health and welfare. Federal civilian officials, including Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers, are in fact prohibited by federal law from taking dangerous personal risks in disaster response.

Reasons Against Greater Military Involvement in Disaster Response

Just as there are reasons for greater use of the military in disaster response, so too are there reasons against increased use of the military in government disaster management. Military help is typically highly temporary. When the National Guard and active military are deployed to a disaster zone, this connotes that civil government in that zone has failed. In the United States, restoration of civil government should represent the end of military involvement.

Moreover, our nations founding fathers were constantly fearful that a strong national military force left to interfere in domestic civilian governance might be, particularly under a powerful military leader, tempted to overthrow duly elected civilian government. This is one reason why the U.S. Constitution squarely assigns top control of the military to the President, a democratically elected leader of civil government. This is also why the United States, until recently, has only entrusted the military to carry our martial law in dire emergencies or as a last resort act of desperation. Americans quickly grow to detest the extended application of martial law.

In major disasters or catastrophes, the military is expected to engage in search and rescue, protect property and life safety, and maintain civil order, but not much more. Military organizations are often ill-equipped to handle many short- and long-term disaster recovery needs, such as rebuilding homes, managing shelters, offering sustained feeding of those made homeless, resettling people, helping businesses rebuild and resume operation, providing disaster unemployment aid, servicing the long-term medical needs of disaster victims, replacing major public infrastructure, and reinstating public utilities.

Enhancing the role of the active military in disaster response raises a host of difficult questions, including whether the active military should have deadly force authority domestically to keep order in a disaster, whether the National Guard or the active military is in charge if both are responding, and what authority governors, mayors, or other local leaders have in such a situation.

There are additional concerns about military and national security involvement in emergency management and state and local governance. National security and military security requirements customarily embody official state secrecy. U.S. official state secrecy is managed through a system of security classification. Access to various types of government information is sometimes restricted to those holding a certain level of security clearance and who have an authorized need to know. The problem is that state secrecy and security requirements, predicated on denying enemies access to information they could exploit in committing acts of terrorism, now shroud from public view a variety of types of local emergency response plans, including those for privately owned facilities whose operation may pose a danger to surrounding communities.

Military and national security encroachment has also made disaster policy implementation more closed, secretive, and selectively law enforcement dominated. Emergency responders of many types must not only obey rules of state secrecy but often must qualify and be vetted to receive security clearances as a condition of job qualification. Some worry that the federal emphasis on the threats posed by terrorism will distort federal, state, and local emergency management in a way that either makes all forms of non-terror disaster management lower priority or that complicates civilian non-terror related emergency management.


An equally important concern stems from walling off the general public from emergency plans and procedures it would benefit them to know. The greater penetration of state secrecy into emergency management the more disaster public education aimed at mitigation and preparedness are undermined.

U.S. Department of Defense and the North American Command

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) provides help in disasters and terror events through various emergency support functions under the National Response Plan/Framework (NRP/F) and must do so in conformity with the National Incident Management System (NIMS). DoD itself is restricted because contributions its military and civilian workers provide to civilian authorities must not interfere with DoDs ability to perform its primary mission or adversely affect its military preparedness.

As it stands now, specific military authorities are paired with civilian counterparts at different levels of government in a disaster or emergency. Military forces are authorized to support law enforcement at federal, state, and local level in any weapon of mass destruction event. DoD plays a lead role in any bioterrorism event or any event involving use of nuclear materials by enemies of the nation. In other types of catastrophes, disasters, or emergencies, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)along with FEMAis the lead or primary federal agency in coordinating emergency response and recovery with state and local governments. In such circumstances, DoD is then a supporting agency.

In short, DoD obligations in homeland disasters and emergencies encompass military response; national mobilization; damage assessment; military support to the civil and private sector; limited police authority; response to all hazards related to nuclear weapons, materials, devices; the management and allocation of all usable waters in the United States; and the stockpiling and storage of critical materials.

The North American Command (NORTHCOM) was established in 2003 to better protect the homeland from attack. NORTHCOMs mission is to help prevent another terror attack on the homeland by militarily defeating attacks by foreigners, by protecting U.S. borders or air space from encroachment or penetration by attackers, or by aiding in the response to a weapon of mass destruction incident inside the United States. NORTHCOM now fulfills many duties under the National Response Plan and Framework.

NORTHCOM and the military are prepared for various forms of terrorist attacks and terror-caused disasters. The problem is that organizations like NORTHCOM and DoD are prone to mission creep, because their ambitious officer corps looks for things to do between terror attacks on the homeland. Should NORTHCOM be compiling lists of potential terrorists in the homeland? Will NORTHCOM seek to supplant National Guard jurisdiction in disaster response? Public managers and emergency managers on that state and local level who agree to play with NORTHCOM must also agree to play by NORTHCOMs national security rules.

Presidential National Security and Public Managers

Despite assumed Posse Comitatus limitations on use of the active duty military in law enforcement, the President possesses constitutionally protected authority to declare a national emergency, thus freeing the U.S. (active duty) militaryas well as federalized National Guard soldiersto participate in criminal law enforcement and to make arrests. The National Emergencies Act empowers the president to declare a national emergency of one-year maximum duration, which may be either terminated or extended by Congressional approval. Most presidential emergency powers involve mobilization, use of funds and personnel, and calling up reserves. The President can use DoD resources as he sees fit to address any event he considers of unique federal importance.

Most presidents have been reluctant to declare national emergencies. However, presidents have used federal forces more than 175 times in 200 years (Sylves, 2008: 174). Executive Order 12656 (issued by President Reagan in1988) sets out primary and support functions during any national security emergency, develops plans for performing these functions, and develops the capability to execute those plans.

In civil disturbances, Article IV of the Constitution allows the military to respond when necessary to prevent loss of life or wanton destruction of property, or to restore governmental functioning and public order. Under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (HSPD-5) issued by President George W. Bush in 2003, there is no longer a distinction between crisis management and consequence management. HSPD-5 stipulates that, states have primary responsibility in responding to terrorist incidents.

The point is that national security concerns have now interlocked emergency management concerns. Emergency managers and emergency management are now part of a system of counter-terrorism or terrorist attack preparedness. State and local emergency management, and of course federal emergency management, are now part of the nations defense and security.

In the matter of biological-chemical WMD, the President may take action on his own and no state request is needed. However, the U.S. Attorney General must ask the Secretary of Defense for law enforcement assistance first. During bio-chemical WMD events, if military aid is needed to protect human life, and civilian law enforcement is incapable of taking action, the military may assist in arrests, searches and seizures, and any direct participation in the collection of intelligence for law enforcement purposes.

Emergency management, as a result of the Anthrax letter attacks of 2001, is now a major part of the execution of quarantine and health laws. A 1915 public health law authorizes military forces to faithfully aid in the execution of quarantines and other restraints established by the health laws of any state any vessels arriving in, or heading toward, any port or district.

President George W. Bush, using homeland security presidential directives, launched Project BioShield, which dramatically expands the role of state and local emergency management in public health, particularly in matters regarding bioterrorism preparedness and response (Sylves, 2008: 118-130).

Quarantines are traditionally state public health matters; however, the federal government may restrict the movement of persons suspected of carrying specified communicable diseases in order to prevent interstate spread of disease. The president could use the armed forces to assist in quarantines at airports, sea ports, and state borders. Such concerns do not seem irrelevant in an era of SARS and the H1N1 Virus.

The Future

As a result of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, a stream of Americas active duty military forces have flowed into what were before civilian domains of emergency management. Also, the nature of emergency management has become permeated with national security and military-like duties, organizational frameworks, protocols, and obligations.

New homeland security grants, though welcomed by many state and local emergency managers, did not directly permit funding of conventional disaster mitigation and preparedness. The State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP), the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), and the Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program (LETPP) all project the primacy of terrorism. The requirements of each of these programs have added dramatically to the workload of state and local emergency managers and other public officials.

The military role in homeland security continues to expand through NORTHCOMs activities, National Guard augmentation, and DoD initiatives. Today, as in the past, there are longstanding emergency management roles for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard, which have grown to be considered an acceptable militarization in public management. However, the terror attacks of 9/11, followed by the Anthrax letter attacks shortly thereafter, steered emergency and public management into a realm of very heavy militarization and national securitization. Civil military relations in emergency and public management cannot be ignored. This may be a good time to, in Washington-speak, walk-back the military penetration of emergency and public management.