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Forces struggle without reservists

| Thursday, Feb. 27, 2003

Though at times it can be stressful, Dan Sharp says his job as a Forest Hills police officer is fulfilling.

Lately, though, it's not only the job that's causing Sharp stress.

Rather, the potential to be called to military duty is a bit unnerving for Sharp, 30, a Navy reservist.

Sharp is one of many local first responders -- including police officers and volunteer firefighters -- who are waiting to find out if they will be called to active military duty.

"Every month when you go to reserves, you hold your breath," Sharp said. "You have to be mentally prepared. There's pressure. But you know what's involved when you sign on the dotted line."

A poll of more than 2,100 law enforcement agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum found that 44 percent have lost personnel to call-ups.

Also, a recent survey of 8,500 fire departments conducted by the International Association of Fire Chiefs showed nearly three-fourths have staff in the reserves -- from firefighters to chiefs themselves.

Suburban police and fire chiefs said that while they are proud of the men and women for their patriotic duties, they are also concerned about the impact on manpower while the reservists are deployed.

Under federal law, the departments are required to hire the officers when they return from deployment. Officials say hiring an interim replacement is not practical because of the extensive training involved. Police chiefs across the area say they are prepared for absences of as long as a year through cutbacks in less essential services such as bike patrols or drug-education programs.

The main goal is to keep officers on the streets, the chiefs said.

Forest Hills police Chief Bill Fabrizi said that if Sharp leaves for active duty, the department will lose almost 10 percent of its force. The department has 11 full-time officers.

"The other guys will take up the slack," Fabrizi said. "There will be no lag."

Fabrizi said the full impact would be felt during the summer, when officers typically use vacation time.

"There may be a school I want several officers to attend, and I'll have to hold off until manpower improves," Fabrizzi said. "We're all on pins and needles for him."

Dan Sharp said one issue he won't have to worry about is providing financially for his wife while he is away. Forest Hills officials are paying the difference between his salary as a police officer and his military compensation.

The Elizabeth Township police department was facing a manpower shortage before the potential for war existed.

Elizabeth Township police Chief Robert Wallace said one officer, Jeff Beatty, an Army reservist, was activated earlier this month. Also, Justin Wardman, a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, who also is the police department's K-9 officer, could be deployed at any time.

"Things are happening so fast," Wallace said. "Suddenly we find ourselves in a manpower crunch."

Wallace said the department of 16 officers has shrunk to 12.

Wallace, who recently became chief, has some challenges ahead. Some of the dilemmas that arise include handling an officer's court appearances.

"You have to handle the arrests that the officer made and have these cases postponed for an extended period of time," Wallace said.

If necessary, Wallace said, he will pull the officer who teaches Drug Abuse Resistance Education out of the Elizabeth Forward schools.

"We will not shirk our patrol duties," Wallace said.

While employers are feeling the stress of the potential loss of manpower, families of the reservists are feeling the stress of having their loved ones in harm's way. Plus, they are left to deal with issues such as child care and finances on their own.

Sharp said he has drawn up a will. He also must assign power of attorney and arrange for taxes and bills to be paid while he is gone. Those responsibilities would fall on Sharp's wife, Lisa.

"It's hard not to think and worry about him being a cop, and it's hard to deal with overseas," said Lisa Sharp. "I just take it one day at a time and hope he doesn't get the phone call."

Penn Hills police Officer Jeff Perz, who previously served in U.S. Marine Corps and recently resigned as a reservist, knows that his recent eight-month stint overseas was not easy on his wife and two children.

"There's nothing positive familywise," said Perz, 40, a Penn Hills police officer for 17 years. "How can anything positive come out of it• But it's something that had to be done."

Perz said he resigned his military post because he decided to become one of the department's K-9 officers.

"I've wanted to do this for 13 years," Perz said. "I had to resign. You can't serve two masters. Someone will get cheated. This is too new to me. I have to concentrate on it."

Perz said he and the dog, Nitro, have seven more weeks of training before they go on duty. Nitro will be used to detect explosives.

"I'll go back into the military," Perz predicted.

Losing volunteer firefighters to military duty has the potential to devastate the departments that are battling recruitment and retention problems aside from the war issue.

Gail Walters, spokeswoman for the International Association of Fire Chiefs in Fairfax, Va., said the survey of fire chiefs last month assessed the potential impact of a military reserve or National Guard call-up to active duty and its effects on the fire service.

Walters said the survey concluded that small departments would take the biggest hit.

"The chiefs do not complain," Walters said. "A number (of fire chiefs) said it is their (the reservists') patriotic duty, and there's nothing they can do," Walters said. "But it would be a huge financial hardship for the smaller departments."

Logans Ferry Fire Company Chief Ray Brenner said even though it's tough to lose any of the volunteers, military service is "the best way to lose people."

"There's nothing you can do about it," said Brenner, of Plum. "You have to deal with it."

Kelly Spewock, of Plum, said her brother-in-law, Tony Spewock, 30, a volunteer firefighter and member of the Army National Reserves, is scheduled within days to be shipped out from his base in Butler.

Spewock said her family recognizes the importance of military duty.

"My husband, who also is a volunteer firefighter, and his family are troupers," Kelly Spewock said. "They are taking it with stride and support Tony."

First responders, of course, are not alone.

Nationwide, 16 percent of all reservists and National Guard troops had been called to active duty by the Pentagon as of Feb. 12, according to a Gannett News Service analysis of military data.

In Pennsylvania, 17 percent of all reservists and National Guard troops had been called to active duty. Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas and New Mexico also had 17 percent called to active duty.

But some states have had far more than that called up and are feeling the pinch as the Pentagon relies more on reserves and Guard troops to perform the combat and logistical missions of the armed forces. The GNS analysis shows that 17 states and Puerto Rico have had 20 percent or more of their Guard troops and reservists mobilized. North Dakota -- at 29 percent -- has the highest percentage of activated troops.

Which units are called up is largely a function of what specialties are needed by top military commanders, said a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Dan Stoneking. Once commanders in the field make certain requests -- for a unit that can handle construction in the desert, for example, or for technicians who repair fighter planes -- officials at the Pentagon decide which units to activate.

"All ... states and territories are providing support for the war on terrorism," Stoneking said. But because of where the units needed for the current mobilization are based, certain states and territories wind up sending more of their reserve soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel to active duty.

Beyond the impact of the mobilization of first responders on local communities, though, the call-ups also could reduce the number of troops available to state authorities if they need them to help with homeland security or natural disasters.

"It's a difficulty," said South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican. "It's a burden anytime you have to send somebody off to war. It impacts almost every single family in our state. There are very few people who don't know somebody who's on active duty."

Aware of the possible burdens the call-ups place on state officials, Pentagon planners do pay attention to the number of people called up from each state, Stoneking said.

"We're certainly not going and saying, 'Well, let's take all the assets from a certain state,"' he said. "We're one country."

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