DHS Seeks Volunteers From Other Agencies to Join Hurricane Relief Surge Force

A house rests on the beach in Florida following Hurricane Irma. A house rests on the beach in Florida following Hurricane Irma. David Goldman/AP

More than 38,000 federal employees are currently working in support of response efforts to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but the Homeland Security Department is soliciting more.

Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke sent a memorandum to agency leaders across government this week asking for them to make available more workers to aid in relief and recovery from the two devastating hurricanes. She made the request as part of the 2006 Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which created the mechanism for Surge Capacity Forces. DHS initiated the forces in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but took on only department employees. Duke’s memo marks the first time DHS has ever asked for help from employees across government through the Surge Capacity Force program.

Employees, both non-Federal Emergency Management Agency DHS personnel and employees from other federal offices, can sign up for the surge force on a completely voluntary basis. They maintain their normal wages but do not have to conduct their normal day-to-day duties. Their supervisors must sign off on their voluntary effort before they are sent to a temporary processing assignment in Anniston, Alabama. There they will receive training and duty assignments before deploying to the impact region. Employees will serve in the surge force for a maximum of 45 days.

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Duke said the “historic nature” of the disasters has necessitated her outreach to agencies outside DHS.

“We are in need of additional personnel from federal departments and agencies to deploy to support our state and local partners on the ground,” Duke wrote in the memo to agency leaderes. “You can help by allowing and encouraging your personnel to participate in the 'Surge Capacity Force.' ”

DHS is looking for at least 2,200 surge volunteers—double the number deployed during Sandy—but may accept more depending on needs. About 6,500 DHS employees are already registered as potential volunteers.

The department now expects to receive volunteers from “all across the board,” said Justine Whelan, a DHS spokeswoman. “We are saying 'no' to no one.”

Volunteers will have the opportunity to work in logistics; public assistance, such as debris monitoring; individual assistance, such as aid to survivors; disaster survivor assistance, to notify the public about available assistance programs; information technology; human resources; external affairs; acquisition; and planning.  Whelan said employees can pitch other areas where they could be of help. She cited, as an example, a potential Education Department employee with experience in grief counseling who might serve a need in a particular community.

“Folks may have specialized skillsets that we don’t know about,” Whelan said.

She added the broadening of the surge forces to all of government will add to the “whole of community” efforts already underway.

“The devastation we have seen in the aftermaths of the recent hurricanes is extraordinary, and our federal support to the collective recovery effort to these regions needs to be equally extraordinary,” Whelan said. “There is a unique opportunity at hand for eligible individuals to voluntarily deploy to these disaster regions to work alongside FEMA, state and locals and countless others.”

She noted the federal community is uniquely suited to assist in the relief efforts.

“The federal government is a community of hardworking, dedicated individuals who have already answered the call to public service,” Whelan said, “and are positioned to continue using their trainings, old and new, and skillsets in the collective effort to recover.”

Dozens of federal agencies across government are already participating in Harvey and Irma response, deploying thousands of employees to affected areas. In addition to FEMA and the rest of DHS, the departments of State, Defense and Interior have played particularly large roles in sending employees to the impacted regions. Virtually every Cabinet-level department has participated in the efforts to varying degrees, both on the ground and by making resources available to individuals in the area. The Environmental Protection Agency, Social Security Administration, U.S. Postal Service and Federal Communications Commission have also played roles in securing areas, restoring communications and delivering services.

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