By Cmdr. Elliott Wright, Navy Emergency Preparedness Officer Program Public Affairs
In less than two weeks after the President’s Executive Order declaring a national emergency, March 13, an initial contingency of 32 specially-trained Navy Reservists rapidly deployed nationwide to support civil authorities in the COVID-19 pandemic response efforts.
The Navy Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers (NEPLO) program consists of 138 Navy Reserve personnel trained in Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA). The majority of NEPLOs are Navy captains with a high degree of DSCA experience and training. During natural and man-made disasters, NEPLOs assist in providing Navy resources where they are needed most.
According to NEPLO Capt. Steve Urwiller, assigned to Navy Region Southwest, the ability to quickly deploy was in large part thanks to the flexibility of several Navy commands.
“The ability to get our members on active-duty orders and through the virtual mobilization process in a matter of days was a result of the outstanding support provided by Fleet Forces Command, Personnel Command, Navy Reserve Forces Command, Reserve Component Commands and several Navy Operational Support Centers,” Urwiller said.
Working as part of a joint military and interagency government team, NEPLOs embed in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) at FEMA headquarters, FEMA regional headquarters, and State Emergency Operations Centers ensuring effective communications between their civil and military counterparts. NEPLOs are also assigned to major Department of Defense command and control nodes including U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), Navy and Army component commands and Commander, Navy Installations Command.
NEPLOs play a key role in providing a “whole of government” approach to their civilian counterparts. In the past, NEPLOs have deployed to assist federal, state, and local government officials with hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires.
“When disasters exceed a state’s ability to respond, the Department of Defense is often asked to support, and that is where NEPLOs jump-in,” said Capt. Steven Stacy, NEPLO Deputy Commander. “Our team has a unique set of skills not replicated by the active duty Navy. We possess the know-how to get Navy resources and capabilities into the fight.”
Stacy added that the COVID-19 relief efforts and providing help to fellow Americans has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his career.
Capt. Andrew Shank, a FEMA NRCC NEPLO facilitating information flow between senior leadership at FEMA and other federal agencies, provide situational awareness of COVID-19 response efforts to the Joint Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense and NORTHCOM Liaisons officers.
“I think this pandemic is a new and different ballgame from anything we’ve encountered before,” Shank said. “It’s really been a big learning experience in terms of how to operate in this environment. We’re learning a lot about how to respond to large scale events, and we will be able to apply those lessons in the future.”
One of the most important jobs NEPLOs have taken on during the pandemic is coordinating the use of Navy medical assets. These Navy resources do not belong to the NEPLO program, but NEPLOs have been instrumental in positioning them to save lives. NEPLOs supported the arrival of hospital ships USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) in Los Angeles and USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) in New York City by working alongside city with governments. When Dallas, Baton Rouge and New Orleans requested help, NEPLOs arranged for the transportation of Emergency Medical Facilities-Mike (EMF-M) from Naval Hospital Jacksonville, Florida to Texas and Louisiana on a C-40A jet from Fleet Logistics Support Squadron Fifty Eight (VR-58).
Weeks later, when the decision was made to redeploy some EMF-M personnel to Stamford, Connecticut, NEPLOs demonstrated their flexibility by orchestrating ground transportation and a flight aboard a C-130 transport from the Air Force 317th Airlift Wing from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas.
Cmdr. Simon Hwang, a NEPLO coordinating troop movement in Dallas, said, “Coordination among four NEPLOs was critical since EMF movement took place from Texas to Louisiana to New Jersey to Connecticut. We had to act almost like an area commander to track and make sure that each place they landed was carefully monitored and coordinated as if we are doing a choreographed dance movement – without proper coordination, we can risk negatively impacting our force.”
Sailors with the Defense Coordinating Element West (DCE West) in Guam helped manage the construction of facilities for EMF personnel and the off-loading of their equipment from the USNS Dahl (T-AKR-312), one of Military Sealift Command's roll-on/roll-off ships.
Capt. Melinda Michael, commanding officer of DCE West and the NEPLO for Joint Region Marianas and Guam says being a NEPLO allowed her to use her civilian experience along with her Navy DSCA training to aid FEMA and her Sailors in response to emergencies within U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
NEPLO deployments typically last no more than 30 days as DSCA is a temporary measure to provide available military assets to civil authorities. However, the current NEPLO pandemic response efforts are expected to continue for much longer. With 77 Reserve Sailors currently activated, the NEPLO team anticipates a continued demand and further requests for more deployment in support of the COVID-19 national emergency.