WASHINGTON Call-up of Guard, reservists puts pinch on safety forces
About 70,000 Guard and reserve troops are protecting U.S. bases in Europe, flying over America's cities or involved in other chores.
WASHINGTON -- Whenever America calls up its National Guard and military-reserve troops, their families and bosses are generally ready to cope with the short-term absence of a loved one or worker.
But the call-up of "weekend warriors" since Sept. 11 is creating unusual -- and some say unwise -- strains, because the mobilization is so large and so many Guard and reserve troops are public-safety officers.
Across the United States, the challenges are visible in a variety of ways:
UThe Des Moines police department lost nine of its 359 employees, even as it has beefed up its airport presence from one officer to eight at a time.
UIn Ashland, Ore., the call-up of police officers has rippled into the criminal-justice system. Several were to be important witnesses in upcoming trials. The cases must be postponed or tried without the police testimony.
UIn Kansas, 400 Guardsmen headed to Europe, representing the state's largest overseas contingent since World War II -- a sign of how the size of this mobilization is testing U.S. communities.
Whether at fire stations, prisons or other public agencies, the Guards and reservists have left behind departments that are suddenly trying to do more with significantly less.
They're scrambling to defend against terrorism -- but with smaller staffs and often shrinking budgets, thanks to a slumping economy.
In all, about 70,000 Guard and reserve troops are now on duty for Uncle Sam -- protecting U.S. bases in Europe, flying over America's cities, or doing other tasks. That doesn't include 7,000 still guarding airports, or 4,200 headed to Salt Lake City for Olympics duty.
A twist: These numbers pale against the 340,000 called up in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But the new twist is that the call-up coincides with a major push for homeland security to prevent possible terrorist attacks. To compensate, many police departments are shifting more remaining staffers onto patrol duty.
"Detectives are working short, community relations is working short, traffic details are working short," says Sgt. Bruce Elrod in Des Moines. And despite the reshuffling, citizens have to wait longer for a police response.
Nearly five months after the tragic events of Sept. 11, some area law enforcement agencies continue to make adjustments as officers are called to active military service.
Columbiana County: In Columbiana County, all but three departments contacted either have no officers serving or are able to adjust to absences without difficulty.
Columbiana Police Chief John Krawchyk said his department of 11 full-time officers continues to handle the absence of Patrolman Tab Bailey because other officers volunteer to work overtime.
Bailey, a member of the Ohio Army National Guard's 838th Military Police Company, is assigned to a Toledo airport at least through March. In April he could return home or be assigned elsewhere.
Patrolman Wade Boley, a medic with the 838th, is still working his patrol shifts and hasn't heard about further duty. He spent a week on active duty in October.
On active duty: Lt. George Williams, commander of the Ohio State Highway Patrol post in Lisbon, said Sgt. Larry Firmi, an Air Force reservist, was called to active duty in late November and is expected to serve for one year. Williams said Firmi is stationed at Vienna and could be sent to McConnell AFB, Wichita, Kan.
Williams said with Firmi gone, there is no longer a sergeant available to fill in when others are ill or on other leave. There have been times when there was not a sergeant available for a shift.
Having one part-time patrolman on active duty has not been a problem for Wellsville police. A patrolman recently hired who has not been sworn in yet is an Army reservist, but he has not been called to active service, a spokesman said.
Mahoning's call-up: In Mahoning County, most departments said they have lost no officers or firefighters to the war effort.
At the Youngstown Fire Department, Chief John O'Neill said two full-time firefighters have been serving since October and are expected to be gone a full year. The absence of Lt. John Thomas and Firefighter Shawn Murray has caused a bit of a crunch.
"It's causing a little bit of a problem but we're working around it," he said. We're shuffling people around to make up for their absence."
O'Neill said no overtime hours have been used to fill the gap yet but he expects that to change in the summer.
Mahoning County Sheriff Randall Wellington said five deputies are serving in various units. Deputies Charles Butler, Jeffrey Duzzny, Michael Hunchuck, Brian Tyree and Paul Yetsco have been gone for four months, and other officers are filling in. Wellington said he hasn't yet received word about when the deputies will return.
"We have intermediate and part-time employees filling in so it really hasn't disrupted our schedules," Wellington said.
At Youngstown Police Department, Detective Sgt. John Elberti and patrol officers Kenneth Blair and John Pain and have been called to serve.
There, rescheduling has helped avoid any overtime hours.
In Austintown, Reserve Patrol Officer Robert Whited is serving.
In Warren, Patrol Officer Chris Martin has not yet been called to serve.
Jobs held open: In Ashland, a mountain-ringed Oregon town of about 20,000, two of 26 sworn police officers were among 581 Army National Guard troops called up from the area. This means half the two-man detective unit is gone. So is half the two-man traffic unit.
They can't be replaced, either, because under federal law, their jobs must open when they return.
The upshot is leaner pay for the troops and also stretched hours for the colleagues they leave behind.
& quot;Overtime is absolutely outrageous now, & quot; says Lt. Rich Walsh, second in command for the Ashland police.
And typically, when troops are deployed, relatively few employers provide them with & quot;gap pay & quot; to make up the difference between their military and civilian salary. Since Sept. 11, more employers are adding this benefit.
Guard or reserve duty can last from a few weeks to as much as two years.
Adding to the strain, Mr. Walsh says, is that Ashland is the kind of small, & quot;livable & quot; city people are coming to from bigger metro areas. The Sept. 11 attacks brought an uptick in growth, which puts more pressure on law-enforcement agencies.
In Ohio, meanwhile, the state's prison system has seen 176 employees called up. So far, it hasn't severely hampered the 15,500-person-strong agency.
But with 509 eligible for call-up, top officials have been worried. & quot;It hasn't impacted us as badly as we thought it would, & quot; says corrections spokeswoman Andrea Dean.
But the numbers point up the concentration of Guard and reserve members in certain civilian professions. No one knows the exact breakdown, but experts say the largest concentrations are among police and firefighters, prison officers, and airline pilots. (Airlines, which are in tough economic straits, have been relieved to have some pilots called up -- and thus off payroll.)
These deployments -- especially overseas -- are raising homeland-security concerns. & quot;If we have an attack on the U.S., we're going to need those people here, not walking children to school in Bosnia, & quot; says Jack Spencer, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, referring to the 9,000 US troops on Bosnia peacekeeping duty.
He adds: & quot;A large percentage of Guardsmen are the local first responders & quot; -- police, fire and emergency medical personnel -- & quot;and they're needed here. & quot;
In the long term, help may be on the way: President Bush's 2003 budget devotes $3.5 billion to first responders. But it's unclear how much will go to overtime or new-hire salaries.
What is clear is that the call-ups have landed particularly hard in some communities. Utah's activation of 2,100 Guard troops, largely for the Olympics, is the largest in its history.
The Illinois Guard sent 1,500 troops to guard a U.S. air base in Germany -- the state's largest overseas deployment since the Korean War.