CHICAGO — When a natural or manmade disaster occurs, federal agencies are willing and able to provide considerable resources to aid the recovery effort. And state and local agencies can take steps to help ensure that the federal effort is a benefit instead of a hindrance, panelists said Thursday during the National Conference on Emergency Communications.

But state and local entities must take the initiative to solicit help from federal agencies, said Rex Whitacre, a national response coordinator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

"I want to support, and I want you to know that I'm not coming in as the federal government to take over your entity," Whitacre said. "That's not my role, our place or what we want to project. We want to support you so that your citizens don't suffer any more than they absolutely have to, and we can't do that unless you ask or request us to help. And just because you request our help doesn't mean we're taking over the state or local environment — I can't stress that enough."

FEMA can provide help in a number of areas, including help with facilities, restoration, tactical support, and planning and coordination, Whitacre said. Federal response is greatly enhanced in states that already have developed disaster plans that FEMA can use to determine where resources are needed most and "what we're dealing with," Whitacre said.

In some cases, resources are best provided by the military. When dealing with such organizations, local and state law-enforcement officials should keep in mind the primary mission of these entities, especially when communicating over non-secure links, said Capt. Christopher Alexander of the U.S. Coast Guard, Atlantic Area.

"As much as we want to be fully engaged and want to be full partners with you guys, there are certain things — from a national-security level and from a practicality standpoint — I can't tell you, [such as] where all of my assets are," Alexander said. "There's drug smugglers, there's illegal-alien smugglers and there's other countries that, if they know that everything is south of this port, then that means that the north part of that region is open, and it exposes us to unneeded vulnerabilities.

"So, when you deal with us, it's not that I don't want to [share such information], it's that I can't."

While the Coast Guard has some domestic responsibilities, the U.S. Navy is funded to "fight the away games" yet provide resources in domestic disaster-recovery situations, said Capt. Eric Patten, operations officer for the U.S. Navy, Southwest. One recent example of such aid was the Navy providing incident awareness and assessment resources that allowed California wildfires to be tracked at night in 2007, he said.

"It helped us understand where the fire was moving, so the firefighters could get ahead of the game," Patten said.

Although the U.S. Navy has significant resources and equipment, they are "very expensive" and can only be deployed when it does not jeopardize the military organization's primary mission.

"Anything we do in a disaster is not planned for on our side and will interrupt somebody's training schedule or somebody's deployment cycle," Patten said. "We have to weigh that very, very heavily against the national defense of the country about what units we send."

In addition, state and local agencies should note that Navy participation in some disaster-recovery efforts may be limited by laws prohibiting the Navy from taking law-enforcement action domestically, Patten said.

"For example, if you have to escort people into an area, we probably wouldn't deploy on that mission … because we would probably be doing law enforcement on U.S. soil," he said.