Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke has asked other federal agencies to contribute their staff and expertise to the DHS Surge Capacity Force, which has been used to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies such as the hurricanes that battered Texas, Louisiana, and Florida over the last few weeks.
"We've had two historic storms in the course of just a few weeks and so the time is right to expand," a senior DHS official told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday.
In years past, the Surge Capacity Force has been comprised only of DHS officials who work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But Duke is asking, for the first time ever, that other federal agencies contribute to the effort.
Duke sent out an internal memo to all federal agencies this week explaining how other federal officials can help. The memo asked all agencies to send federal employees to help with emergency response efforts, starting with the ongoing response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Currently, 38,000 federal personnel are working in support of the hurricane response efforts, including more than 2,000 FEMA staff. About 6,500 non-FEMA employees are registered in the temporary program.
All 15 department chiefs are expected to support and carry out Duke's instruction, a DHS spokesperson said. The new effort would free up likely thousands more to volunteer at a time when the U.S. has weathered an unprecedented level of natural disaster.
"The federal government is filled with dedicated public servants who commit themselves every day to something that is greater than themselves and this is really an outgrowth of the work that public servants do ... as one federal family to support communities that are in great need," the senior DHS official said.
The memo said volunteers would have to be able to be deployed in less than 48 hours and have undergone a personnel security investigation. They also need their supervisors' approval, and a government-issued travel card.
It's impossible to pinpoint the number of eligible volunteers, but the senior official said his department is "bending over backwards" with each department to provide resources on how to mobilize their workforces and recruit volunteers as quickly as possible.
The Surge Capacity Force was created out of the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, which ordered the DHS secretary designate additional employees who would make up a backup team that could be called into action if a major disaster took place.
The force was called into action once after Hurricane Sandy hit the New Jersey in 2012 and 1,100 force members were deployed. Duke, who took over the department when President Trump appointed John Kelly White House chief of staff July 31, activated it in response to Hurricane Harvey.
As part of the force, federal agencies have deployed nearly 22,000 non-DHS employees working in FEMA-related agencies — in addition to FEMA's estimated 2,000 employees — to travel to Florida and surrounding states to help with the response efforts following Hurricane Irma.
These federal workers would be deployed in waves and first sent to a personnel mobilization center in Anniston, Ala., where they would receive training in logistics, public assistance, individual assistance, disaster survivor assistance, information technology, human resources, or finance, depending on the assignment. Deployments would last no more than 45 days, as has been the policy for the Surge Capacity Force policy.
After the initial 45 days, additional volunteers could be sent to emergency zones to focus on long-term recovery, but that will depend on the state of each community.
"That's something we have to reassess after, [whether we] supplement the current force," the senior official explained. "Really more than anything this is about how to anticipate and identify community needs. When an individual has lost everything, they need to be able to interact with the federal government in the way that is easiest for them, rather than in the way that is easiest for the federal government."