Iraq call-ups sap manpower back home

Deployed National Guard and Reserve members cause staffing holes from firehouse to the classroom.

When Warden Charles Flanagan gazes out the window, he sees a yellow ribbon flickering in the breeze. It provides a soft contrast to the concertina wire and chain-link fence of the Arizona state prison here - and a sharp reminder of a war being waged thousands of miles away. While the ribbon honors his 10 staffers now on duty in Iraq, it also denotes a struggle to fill manpower gaps within the concrete walls here.

Mr. Flanagan already faces a shortage of corrections officers, and, with budgets tight, he can't afford to hire temporary guards. "This creates a difficult situation for us," he says. "It really hurts when we're understaffed and overcrowded."

Warden Flanagan isn't alone. The biggest call-up of National Guard and Reserve members since World War II is creating manpower holes on factory floors and in government agencies across the country. From police precincts to firefighting units, public and private entities are struggling to cope with missing workers - often creating extra burdens for employees left behind.

While everyone knew there would be adjustments to make, the magnitude of the call-up and the prolonged stay of many units is putting added stress on some agencies - particularly at a time of lean finances.

In some states, such as Utah and Idaho, up to 70 percent of Reservists and Guard members have been deployed. The pinch is felt across the board. In Minnesota, for example, about 60 teachers have been called up for duty since Sept. 11, 2001. In California, the Los Angeles Police Department must contend with up to 200 employees activated at any given time, in a department where nearly 5 percent of the 9,000 employees are members of the Reserves.

The ongoing call-ups have state leaders worried. In Washington state, for example, 62 percent of the 87,000 National Guard soldiers - including many top firefighters - are on active duty during the summer fire season. "This has had a huge impact," said a worried Gov. Gary Locke (D) after a governors meeting with Pentagon officials in July.

About 2,000 of the 4,400 Arizona National Guard members have been activated since 2002, and a majority serve more than a year. Currently, about 700 are on active duty, leaving empty detective desks and squad cars behind. Particularly hard hit are law-enforcement agencies. "Just by the nature of their work, there are a higher percentage [of deployments] in some agencies...," says Patty Urias, an aide to Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D).

In the Arizona Department of Corrections, 91 employees are on active duty, and about 125 are on standby. The Department of Public Safety (DPS) has 21 officers on active duty - at a time when the agency is already short about 100 positions, including badly needed patrol officers. While the shortage is acute, the Tucson highway patrol division "has so far been able to weather the storm," says Cmdr. Brant Benham. "But we could use 10 more officers on our staff as it is."

Paul Etnire feels the manpower pinch firsthand. As Arizona's only DPS recruiting officer, his own recent 16-month deployment to Iraq expanded his boss's workload. The department "is already stretched thin, and those who stay behind must pick up the slack," he says.

But even when call-ups don't create staffing problems, employers such as the City of Tucson have other concerns. Of 5,700 employees, only six are currently deployed. Yet the city fills the income gap if military pay falls short of their salaries. That costs about $40,000 a year, says Suzanne Machain, deputy director of human resources. Fortunately, the deployed workers are spread through various departments, so no single area is overly taxed.

Other public entities haven't fared as well. In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, 12 employees from the local sheriff's department are on active duty. And 79 city employees have been called up since Sept. 11, 2001. Of those, approximately 70 percent are employed by the Phoenix Police Department.

As in Washington, maintaining adequate numbers of firefighters is a major concern. Guard members act as a reserve firefighting force, and their equipment - such as Black Hawk helicopters - were crucial in fighting the huge Rodeo-Chediski fire in 2002. Of greater concern are firefighters from local departments. When those people are deployed, "we lose firefighting expertise," says Ron Melcher, fire coordinator for the Arizona State Land Department.

Nor are the impacts limited to public agencies. Many businesses are feeling the strains, too - such as in the form of overtime payments to employees working expanded shifts. Small and mid-size companies have been hit particularly hard, Jeffrey Crowe, who sits on the board of the US Chamber of Commerce, told a congressional committee in June.

Still, military officials insist plenty of manpower remains, especially for emergencies. Maj. Eileen Bienz, a spokeswoman for the Arizona National Guard, says they "work closely with the governor's office" when deployments are scheduled. At the same time, many employers suffer the sacrifice willingly, she says, because Guard and Reserve members make excellent employees.

Still, call-ups hit home in many ways. Recently, the brother of one of Warden Flanagan's guards was killed in Iraq. Now the officer himself faces deployment in January. "There's more than just the impact of staffing," Flanagan says. "There's also an emotional impact, and it wears on all of us."

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