Volunteers rally to defend their homeland

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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"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."

Image problem

Talk of civilians helping out with civil defense can also conjure up mental images of codgers in ancient doughboy helmets scanning the coastline with binoculars during World War II for German subs that never show, or ex-military men in uniform waving riding crops while serving as suburban block captains.

Civil defense has also suffered something of a credibility problem after the bomb shelter and duck-and-cover craze that symbolized 1950s civil defense, when such practices were deemed wholly inadequate in the face of nuclear war.

"There was nothing the individual citizen or small groups of them could do to protect themselves from thermonuclear war," says Larsen. "That's not true in the twenty-first century. There are many things individuals can do to protect their families and their communities from biological attacks."

Others question the value of individual volunteerism. "Civil defense in the United States has always had some structure, but ultimately it was left up to the individual to take care of themselves," says Andrew Grossman, an assistant professor and civil-defense expert at Albion College in Michigan. "There's just not a lot individuals can do. I think the government knows that, but it isn't good politics to say it."

Volunteers plug gaps

Others say volunteers are needed - and not just because the strain on resources caused by recession makes unpaid workers fiscally attractive - because they play a unique role.

Indeed, the disaster action team that Pam January, the St. Louis volunteer, is a part of, will go to an accident scene to lend comfort to victims - or the site of a terrorist attack if one were to occur. "Being there and holding someone's hand, being an emotional support to someone, that's not something the government can do," she says.

Larsen believes both government and individuals have roles to play. He cites the example of a nationwide disaster exercise last year, which included a simulated release of plague in Denver. Nearly 100,000 pounds of antibiotics were shipped by the federal government to handle the fictitious outbreak, but they were left sitting at the airport with no distribution mechanism in place.

"It's a perfect example of what a voluntary service organization can do," says Larsen. "Give me six hours twice a year with maybe all the Rotary clubs or Knights of Columbus in the Denver area, and we could come up with a plan on how to do it - how to set-up distribution points at, say, all the elementary schools in the area."

Some citizens are already taking the initiative to help. Dan Dodgen, a mental health professional in Washington, volunteered his services on the morning of Sept. 12 . Subsequently, he and others are meeting with local agencies in the area to address perceived gaps in counseling services that became apparent after Sept. 11.

"It's not either/or," he says about the role of government and private citizens in civil defense. "Obviously government has a role to play, but we saw at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that existing government personnel weren't sufficient to meet the need.... Volunteers played a significant role in those situations, and I think they can and should be counted on in the future."

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