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Volunteers rally to defend their homeland

Bush wants citizens more engaged in civil defense. Training seen as vital to success.

By Craig SavoyeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 2001


Like millions of Americans, Pam January came away from the attacks of Sept. 11 with a desire to help. She went to the local American Red Cross office here and promptly volunteered to deal with some of the 11,000 phone calls the office received in the 14 days following the attacks. Now she has joined the Red Cross's local disaster action team - a group that's on-call 24 hours a day for area emergencies - working an 8-hour shift per week.

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"I just had a strong feeling I had to do something, and after I'd done something I wanted to do more," she says. "It seems to me there's a role for everyone to play."

While the federal government and individual states struggle to develop a vision and structure for homeland security, Ms. January and tens of thousands of other Americans aren't waiting on the sidelines. By filling breaches in emergency services made evident after the September 11 attacks, they're ensuring that any future civil defense force will include citizen volunteers as a vital component.

"It comes down to the definition of a 'good citizen' changing," says Randy Larsen, director of the Institute for Homeland Security, a nonprofit public-service research institute. "In the 20th century we thought a good citizen was somebody who voted, paid their taxes, gave some money to the United Way, and helped a little bit at church. In the 21st century it's going to take more than that, it's going to take active participation."

New calls to enlist

The first attack on American soil since World War II led President Bush to call for the creation of a volunteer civil defense service last month.

The Bush plan envisions an expansion of the national service groups AmeriCorps and Senior Corps by 20,000 volunteers next year, most of whom would assist police and fire departments, as well as public-health agencies, during emergencies, largely freeing up professionals for essential duties. Mr. Bush also created the Presidential Task Force on Citizen Preparedness. By the end of the year it will make recommendations on how Americans can protect homes, schools, churches and businesses from possible terrorist attacks.

A bill in Congress is even more ambitious. "The Call to Service Act of 2001" would expand AmeriCorps, which now has 50,000 volunteers, to 250,000 volunteers by 2010. Approximately half of the volunteers would be dedicated to homeland security or public safety instead of helping in schools or elsewhere.

But police-assistance programs point up some of the problems associated with deploying a civil-defense force.

"When people are more alert and act as extra eyes and ears, that's helpful," says John Thull, chief of police in rural Litchfield, Ill., a department with 14 officers. "But I wouldn't know what to do with a lot of volunteers. Who would train them? They'd need to be trained to the point where my officers could trust them. And practically speaking, there'd be liability concerns, too."

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