In emergency, good guys wear black hats

Posted: Saturday, March 04, 2000

Should disaster strike, the people in black hats will be the good guys, there to help.

Maj. Phil Nash of the Alaska State Defense Force said the volunteer militia members are identifiable by the color of their head gear.

"We wear black caps," Nash said. "That's the only part of our uniform that's different from National Guard and Active Duty."

The Alaska State Defense Force is made up entirely of volunteers who train one Saturday a month.

According to its mission statement, the Alaska State Defense Force "is to maintain an organized and trained military force, capable of timely and effective response to state emergencies ... to provide military assistance to ... authorities in the preservation of life, property and public safety."

Maj. Nash, a Kenai lawyer and former paratrooper, is commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion's A Company, which has members from Homer to Seward.

Nash said the ASDF is unlike the National Guard because it only serves the governor and cannot be nationalized. It also does not get equipment from the government.

"We buy our own uniforms; we buy our own equipment," Nash said.

The defense force also cannot be activated without its consent, except in the direst of emergencies.

When A Company gathers monthly for training, it has exercises in a wide range of activities, including traffic control, report writing, police radio procedures, guard duty and search and rescue.

In recent years, members of the defense force have assisted in several disasters.

During the 1996 Millers Reach wildfire in the Susitna Valley, state defenders set up tents and communications centers for the various agencies involved, provided residents with information and staffed mass care shelters.

In the wake of the 1999 Turnagain Arm avalanche, A Company members directed traffic around the hazard area, took part in searching for survivors and kept track of snowmachine traffic up and down the mountain to prevent confusion and wasted efforts.

The Alaska State Defense Force also was activated in 1995 to help with the Kenai River floods. Some ASDF personnel filed damage assessment reports, while others swept the river for floating people and debris.

Despite the eagerness of volunteers to help whenever needed, Nash said the defense force's services must be requested by whomever is in charge of response to any particular disaster.

"We wouldn't just go running out there because we saw smoke," Nash said. "The local person is the incident commander for every disaster."

There are economic considerations as well. "Because, when we're activated, we're paid at the military rank," Nash said. "Somebody has to pay for us. They want to be very careful they need assistance before they call us in."

The statute establishing the defense force stipulates it only be used during formally declared states of emergency. Since most disasters are handled on a local or borough level, the ASDF is used only rarely.

Its members, however, pitch in even when they aren't formally activated.

"We're wanting to be part of the solution, not part of the problem," Nash said. "If we weren't concerned about our community, we'd be home those Saturdays. "

Nash said the ASDF training gives members a bit of an edge when they volunteer privately.

Various emergency agencies help the ASDF train, so when the time comes, they know its members are competent, Nash said.

Nash said his company is chronically understaffed.

Although part of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans affairs, Nash said participating in defense force activities is neither particularly dangerous nor necessarily strenuous.

"We have a lot of older people in the organization," he said. "We have people all the way from 17 to late-70s. I would say (the ASDF) is safer than playing chess," Nash continued. "Certainly safer than playing canasta with your spouse."

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