Reserve call-ups deplete police, fire departments

These are a different breed of soldier.

They are drawn from small-town police departments and big-city hospitals, from emergency medical crews and deputies guarding county jails, from the rank and file and the top brass of agencies charged with keeping this country safe.

As the Pentagon begins mobilizing America's 1.2 million reservists and National Guard troops - nearly 95,000 already are active - many are leaving behind not just families and loved ones, but also key public-service jobs that can't easily be filled.

Take Bernard Melekian. He's chief of the 250-member Pasadena, Calif., police force. But at 7:30 a.m. Monday, he'll sling a duffel bag over his shoulder and report for duty with the Coast Guard - a reservist called up in his 18th year of service. "It's not how I was planning to spend 2003, but I've always known it was a possibility," he says.

Listen to Joey Runyon, chief of police in Hannibal, Mo. Four of his 36 officers are gone for a month of reserve training with the 2175th military police battalion. They were activated for 10 months last year, guarding a station in Iowa, and he's sure they'll be called again soon. Chief Runyon sees some irony in the two sets of press calls he's gotten lately. One is about men called to serve, possibly in war.

The other asks what his depleted department is doing to bolster security. "They're taking them just when we're supposed to be beefing up homeland security," he says.

The exodus of reservists at this point is more a trickle than a flood. But for police departments in modest-sized towns like Mark Twain's birthplace, the loss of even a few officers can impact enforcement, especially when they're highly trained supervisors.

The jobs, by law, must be kept until reservists return, and finding a temporary replacement is difficult. With the loss of reservists piled atop tight budgets and unfilled positions, Mr. Runyon has found his task a scheduling nightmare.

"We were getting beat to death here last summer, working 50-hour weeks," he says. "It drained the overtime budget."

Across the country, states, counties, and small towns are facing a similar dilemma: How to keep America safe at home when the men and women who do that job are being called to support a possible war effort overseas:

• In tiny Papillon, Neb., six officers on a 31-man force are reservists, including two of four shift supervisors and Chief Leonard Houloose. Only one has been called up so far, but Mr. Houloose expects the rest may go, too.

• In West Virginia, the state could lose 10 percent of its 560 troopers if all are activated - and the force is already understaffed by more than 100 people. In rural counties, notes Senior Trooper Jay Powers, state police are often the only law-enforcement around. "We'll just have to make sure we take priority on calls," he says. "Before, we might have one person go to a bad traffic crash, while another person is working a murder. Now if we have both situations, the murder might have to come first."

• Texas has had 140 prison employees, mostly corrections officers, already called to active duty. Another 400 could be summoned. "It's a challenge for us," says public information officer Larry Todd, noting that it could lead to a lockdown in some cell blocks.

• In La Grange, Ga., Police Chief Lou Dekmar just welcomed back four men who had been deployed last year after Sept. 11, only to learn at least three have been reactivated. Between training and unfilled positions, he's down another 10 people. "You end up embracing the serenity prayer," he says. "Accept the things I cannot change and change the things I can."

Impact in police precincts

Preliminary results from a Justice Department survey show that 48 percent of law-enforcement agencies lost men to call-ups since Sept. 11, according to the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington. A survey by the International Association of Fire Chiefs indicated that 72 percent of departments had at least one member in the reserves, though small departments faced the most devastating losses.

One response said simply, "We have only two paid firefighters. Both have been called."

Part of the problem, explains George Burke, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, is the confluence of tough situations.

"Two-thirds of the nation's fire departments are already understaffed," he says. "And professional firefighters are heavily weighted with reservists and National Guardsmen." Add to that the country's economic malaise, state deficits, layoffs at local departments, and depleted overtime budgets, he says, and "yes, it's a crisis."

For employers, the question isn't always "how many?" but "who?" Reservists include, for instance, South Carolina's newly elected governor, Mark Sanford. He's a member of the 315th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. Governor Sanford has said he would serve if called.

In Hannibal, the missing men include two of three watch officers. And Chief Dekmar will be losing three men from La Grange's 12-man tactical team, a special unit for emergencies. "It's a wing and a prayer," says Dekmar. "But that doesn't make for good management or appropriate security."

Doctors are being called up, too

Hospitals are also concerned. The activation of physicians tends to come in concentrated groups, usually in cities. When a medical battalion is mobilized, most of its members live and work in a fairly small radius, notes James Bentley, senior vice president at the American Hospital Association. Mr. Bentley cites one hospital that didn't know its head of trauma surgery and its burn therapist were reservists until both were called up after Sept. 11. "Fortunately they weren't away long," he says, "but it was a realization."

And the losses are emotional as well as logistical. The 28-man police department in Goffstown, N.H., has had two officers activated since Sept., 2001. "There's been a lot of schedule juggling, overtime, adjustments to the budget," says Chief Mike French. "There's only so much overtime somebody can work before they themselves need a break." But what's bothering him isn't so much his overworked men and strapped budget. "We miss the guys," he says.

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