Saturday, 10 September 2005

Should FEMA be a uniformed service?

Bryan of Arguing with signposts asks whether reorganizing FEMA along military lines would make it more effective; this would not be unprecedented, as there are already several federal government agencies with primarily civilian responsibilities that are organized like the armed forces: the Coast Guard, the U.S. Public Health Service (hence why its head is the “surgeon general”), and NOAA.


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.


I’d argue that since WW II (maybe WW I; I’d have to do some digging in Coast Guard history to be sure) the Coast Guard’s been getting less and less “civilian”, and more and more military in its mission and orientation.

According to the NOAA Corps website (

During the years before the First World War, all C&GS work was conducted by civilians even though shipboard personnel wore uniforms that were virtually indistinguishable from Naval uniforms. With the entry of the United States into the war in 1917, the commissioned service of the C&GS was formed in order to eliminate the anomalous condition that arose during the Civil War, which placed civilian assistants accompanying armed forces in jeopardy of being considered spies if captured by the enemy. Also, by forming a uniformed commissioned service that could be rapidly transferred into the Armed Forces, the rapid assimilation of C&GS technical skills for defense purposes was assured.

Still today, if a national emergency occurs, the NOAA Corps could be assimilated rapidly into the armed services by order of the President.

I suspect that the PHS (which historically has provided medical service to Coast Guard units detached from military medical facilities, and which has defense responsibilities in wartime) is a uniformed service for similar reasons (to give PHS personnel accompanying military personnel in wartime the protections of the Geneva conventions and similar provisions of the law of war).
[Permalink] 2. Bob Smith wrote @ Fri, 16 Sep 2005, 11:02 pm CDT:

I preface my comments with the statement that I worked in NOAA for 30+ years. I have significant experience working with and for NOAA Corps officers.

First, the NOAA Corps history cited above is incomplete and inaccurate. The real reason the Corps was created was the lack of officers to continue C&GS survey work during WWI. While the history above asserts that civilians were performing the bureau’s work this is not completely accurate. C&GS was staffed by both Army and Navy officers on loan from those services. At that time government ships could not be operated unless they included military officers, i.e., navy. Likewise, field surveys in some largely unexplored regions had to have military support, i.e., army. The call-up of all able bodied military personnel during WWI depleted the C&GS workforce. Dept of Commerce determined that to prevent a recurrence they needed their own uniformed service, thus began the NOAA Corps.

However, as time went on the need for military expertise or military type operations lessened to the point that today there is virtually no need at all in a surveying and mapping enterprise. This fact has not gone unnoticed by Congress which in the mid-90’s sought to abolish the NOAA Corps entirely. The Corps fought back ferociously. They had a lot to lose. Where else could you find a 400-man organization with four admirals and 75+ captains? 20 year retirement with full military benefits but none of the military drudgery. Unfortunately for the taxpayer the fight went on so long that Congress gave up. What Congress did do however, is restrict the size of the Corps to about 275 and mandated that 50% of appropriations for survey work be used for contracting. Efforts are underway to increase this percentage even further as the private sector has proven it can perform as well or better then the Corps.

While the Corps had a valid purpose at one point in history its value has been largely diminished. I for one, hope that within my lifetime Congress takes up the battle once more and is able to eliminate this bottomless pit of expanding budgets and needless waste. To think that FEMA would function more effectively with uniformed personnel is to ignore its own history pre-DHS. FEMA did quite well when run as an autonomous agency and is capable of doing it again if removed from under the control of incompentent political appointees.

Comments are now closed on this post.