The compounding impact of disasters like COVID-19 and the California wildfires continue to strain the limited public health and disaster response resources and personnel who are statutorily designated to fight them. Although natural and public health disasters arguably pose a more immediate threat to society and homeland security than any threat the military is designed to face, the United States military has a reserve force that rivals the size of many components of the emergency and public health sectors. Its size and resources have made the U.S. military reserve vital in supporting natural disaster and public health emergency responses. However, the United States should not rely on the capabilities of the U.S. military to manage the complex social and economic impacts of natural and public health disasters. Rather, the United States needs to devote greater investment toward reserves in the emergency response and non-military sectors of society to be truly prepared against the kind of disasters that are only expected to intensify.

More Military Reserves, Fewer Military Threats

The size of the U.S. military reserve seems disproportionate to the threats such a force is designed to fight. The Global Firepower Index (GFI) reported almost 40 percent of the more than 2.2 million U.S. military members alone are reservists. Though the GFI does not explicitly refer to the National Guard — the National Guard are likely included in the GFI data on reservists because the National Guard are defined as reservists under U.S. law. The U.S. reserve equates to 85 percent of the active Russian military and 43 percent of the active Chinese military, argued the next most capable conventional militaries in the GFI.

However, the United States has not experienced a foreign military incursion in its territory since World War II. The most destructive terrorist attack in history occurred in 2001, and despite that, the probability that a U.S. citizen dies in a terrorist attack is just one in 3.3 million per year.

The U.S. military reserves, including and especially the National Guard, are often called to support natural disaster and other emergency responses. Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) is a U.S. military mission. This is likely because there is arguably no other entity in the U.S. government with the reach, resources, and personnel to deploy rapidly in large volumes in times of emergency and to hard-to-reach areas than the U.S. military, so of course the military should be prepared to answer the call when these disasters occur. However, the emergency response sector statutorily exists separate from the military, and if these disasters are more immediate than military threats, perhaps the emergency management sector requires a formal reserve force more than the military.

Fewer Emergency Response Reserves, More Emergencies

The threats posed by natural disasters and public health emergencies are arguably more immediate than military threats, yet the resources to fight these emergencies are fewer. For example, COVID-19 has killed almost 200,000 Americans, four times the number of Americans killed in Vietnam. Yet, the entire U.S. military reserve alone is almost the same size as the number of all actively practicing U.S. doctors. There are about 953,000 physicians in the United States — 93 percent of which are M.Ds (medical doctors) and the others D.O.s (osteopathic doctors). The entire U.S. military reserve — which includes personnel of many professions — has 860,000 personnel, meaning that the entire military reserve equates to 90 percent of the entire U.S. labor force of physicians.

Natural disasters in the United States, including the wildfires ravaging the West Coast, cause billions of dollars’ worth of damages and displace hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. Almost 3.5 million acres have burned this year, larger than the combined size of Rhode Island and Puerto Rico. Roughly 96 percent of California’s fire engines have been deployed and 12,000 firefighters, twice the amount deployed during the peak of the 2018 Camp Fire. Two-thirds of the more than1 million firefighters in the United States are unpaid volunteers. California has also relied on prison inmates to fill deficits in wildfire response. Yet, as disasters surge, there lacks a robust, unified reserve force specifically designed for disasters like there is for the military and military threats.

Various components of the U.S. emergency management sector attempt to recruit reservists. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has the FEMA Reservists Program, on-call personnel to support disaster assistance within designated specialties or “cadres,” with payment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recruits volunteers to the Medical Reserve Corps. The Department of Homeland Security recruits volunteers to local Community Emergency Response Teams and Citizen Corps to support local disaster assistance. There are often opportunities and requirements for training in many of these programs. Therefore, theoretically, the emergency response sector already has a reserve.

Military Reserves vs. Emergency Response Reserves

When only considering the number of Americans in professions needed to respond to disasters, their combined strength technically outweighs that of the military and its reserve components. However, as the system is currently designed, the U.S. military is more capable of responding to natural disasters than the emergency response sector itself.

First, most emergency response reservists are unpaid volunteers, which alone reduces the incentive to join an emergency response force. There are benefits to joining the National Guard and military reserves, even when not full-time, that being in the emergency response reserves cannot provide. The military benefits are not the only reasons people join the military reserves, but they are an additional incentive to join. The emergency response reserves are very unlikely to achieve the staffing available in the military reserves alone on the factor of minimal incentive.

Second, emergency responses are less uniform and concentrated than military responses. When the military reserves are deployed to support domestic or foreign disaster assistance, their services support the disaster management authority for the particular emergency, providing specific, concentrated services at the lead organization’s request. When the objective is more concentrated, more focused on certain purposes or objectives, the more successful the response is likely to be. When forces are spread too thin, the opposite is more likely. The military’s concentration is made easier in emergency responses by a clear, centralized command structure within the military itself, thereby promoting more efficient information flow and objectives.

Such centralization and concentration, though not impossible, is more difficult when managing natural disasters and public health emergencies. When disaster strikes, all aspects of society are affected, in both the public and private sectors. It is not clear that there are enough people to continue operating those sectors of society, particularly if disasters become more disruptive due to climate change.

Emergency response is a whole-of-government and whole-of-society effort – when practiced effectively. However, the whole-of-government does not invest in ensuring the whole-of-society is prepared to face these disasters. The most successful responses to natural disasters and public health emergencies are those with robust and consistent national strategies to address them.

The military reserves and the emergency response reserves differ in their relative emphases on training. Military reservists and the National Guard are required to serve around 39 days per year. During these times, they often complete key training and professional development critical to maintaining a robust reserve. In contrast, the training available to emergency response personnel is inconsistent. While firefighters undergo periodic training to maintain skills, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported this year that personnel deployed to support FEMA responses struggled to maintain levels of qualification and training required to serve in the field. Even large numbers cannot entirely compensate for a lack of training

The Costs of Not Investing in Non-Military Emergency Reserves

The lack of human reserves across various sectors of society, particularly the emergency responders, can increase an emergency’s duration and recovery costs. For example, without enough doctors to treat COVID-19, or enough personal protective equipment (PPE) production for doctors, or even enough sanitation and custodial staff, the virus is more likely to spread. Similarly, the inability to marshal enough firefighters to curtail the wildfires promotes further spread.

As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of certain natural disasters, the military may increasingly be called to respond because it is the organization with the most capacity to recruit reserves and attain resources and equipment at a faster pace due to political prioritization on defense. The military has been an essential ally during natural disasters and public health emergencies, providing critical support to natural disasters and the COVID-19 response. However, its central purpose is to launch military operations in response to military threats.

The emergency response sector cannot sustain itself without comparable investment to the U.S. military in a robust reserve corps to fight the threats more immediately facing the country and its population; one that can be called to service across society to handle the immediate effects of disaster and one that can promote the continuity of society’s key functions. This requires investing institutionally in the recruitment, training, and retention of individuals prepared to respond to disasters. Until then, the country may increasingly rely on thinly distributed military resources to respond to growing disasters.

The lack of human reservists in the face of emergencies like the Californian wildfires indicates that even the U.S. experiences resource insecurity that transcends the gap in available emergency responders. There should be institutional investments in other aspects of society to maintain a baseline level of resilience amidst these emergencies. For example, Congress controls the number of doctors that can be certified in a given year. In turn, there may need to be broader initiatives to train nurses and nurse practitioners to fill in gaps or carry out various tasks in an emergency that doctors might typically perform in “peacetime.”

More nuanced might be a situation in which natural disasters, or those like COVID-19, trigger a need for heightened manufacturing or trucking. If, for example, there was a national requirement for every citizen to obtain and maintain a commercial driver’s license, or develop skills in a particular trade – at the subsidized cost of the government – then the potential for the United States to activate personnel and keep society running in the face of emergencies would increase, regardless of the threat. Even with the already large number of military reservists in the United States, the GFI reported that more than one-third of the U.S. population is considered “fit-for-service.” Presumably, the same fitness standards are not entirely necessary for performing emergency response functions. Therefore, even with a large military reserve, the United States maintains the inherent population potential to develop reserve forces for other aspects of society.

Reimagining the Reserves

Even though the threat of a pandemic had long been warned about, COVID-19 came as a surprise, but natural disasters like the California wildfires are annual occurrences. They are not new, but there is a persistent lack of resources, particularly people, to adequately respond to them. And, due to the intensifying impacts of climate change, extreme weather events are expected to become more severe and more frequent. The U.S. military reserve is plentiful, but the reserve of people on the frontlines of the most immediate natural disasters and public health emergencies is not. The military should support, but not be the crutch, on which disaster response hinges.

An emergency response’s success relies on the availability of viable human resources fighting those disasters and, in the sectors critical to keeping society operating in the face of those disasters. There may come a day when the U.S. cannot rely on its capacity to adapt mid-disaster, and rebuild after disaster, to keep moving forward. It must ask itself whether it is effectively using its vast resource and population potential to be prepared when disaster strikes, and whether there are constitutional and effective ways of maximizing that population potential for proactive preparedness.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, or the U.S. government.

Image: A member of the Oregon National Guard works a checkpoint along Highway 22 on September 13, 2020 in Lyons, Oregon. Multiple wildfires grew by hundreds of thousands of acres this week forcing evacuations and road closures. Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images