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Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Talks Disaster Response

By Amanda Morad | June 15, 2012

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense, Paul McHale

As part of Regent University's Professional & Continuing Education (PCE) certificate program in Homeland Security, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Congressman Paul McHale kicked off a three-week course in Disaster Response. The class met on Monday, June 11.

McHale spoke to students about his long and involved history with the Department of Defense (DOD) and experience in disaster response. McHale began the class with a discussion of Federalist Paper #8, in which the authors consider the role of the military within American borders.

"If we became too dependent upon the military for domestic security, the net result would be a degradation of our constitutional values and democratic structure," he explained. However, using examples like September 11 and Hurricane Katrina, McHale noted that the military can also be a major life-saving asset in disaster situations.

Giving students the opportunity to put theory into practice, he gave the students a catastrophic scenario of a major earthquake in the heart of San Francisco, and then helped them analyze the national response from the governor's call to the President to the deployment of forces to the disaster site.

"Bureaucracy melts in these kinds of situations," McHale said. "Decisions are made verbally and made quickly."

The National Guard plays an important role in disaster situations, he noted, explaining the process of deployment from the DOD. "Having capability is different than having the ability to deploy those capabilities quickly and efficiently enough to save lives," McHale said. Currently, the DOD's speed of deployment is measured in days, not hours.

Unsatisfied with the current rate of deployment for civil support missions—under which disaster response falls—McHale made it his mission as assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense to better equip states to handle disaster situations. He helped assemble nearly 40 additional civil support teams across the country—bringing the total to at least one per state—that are equipped to handle CBRNE situations, natural disasters, hazmat and industrial accidents, and a host of other scenarios.

There are two kinds of planning strategies for disaster response, McHale explained as he concluded the class: capability-based planning and scenario-based planning. The first assembles a plan for each event as it happens based on the forces available at the time. This offers flexibility, McHale said, but "assembling those capabilities into deployable forces is problematic."

The second planning strategy is based on packaging forces and plans according to a variety of different scenarios. Among them are responses to several kinds of natural disasters as well as "CBRNE" contaminant situations, including chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive contamination. This strategy is often criticized for being too rigid, as every situation will be different than the planned scenario, but it does help move forces more quickly and effectively, McHale explained.

"No plan survives first contact with the enemy, but there is great merit in planning for scenarios, not so that you fall in love with your plan, but that you modify your plan accordingly," he said.

McHale is the president of Civil Support International LLC, a consulting firm offering advisory services to government agencies and private contractors related to military sales, homeland defense, disaster preparedness and crisis response.

The PCE Disaster Response course is one of four in the Homeland Security certificate program.

Learn more about PCE's programs.


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