TAMPA — On the ground and in the air, up to 1,700 troops from the Florida National Guard could play key support roles during the Republican National Convention.
It's rarely mentioned publicly, but officials have said the Guard troops — many if not most of whom will likely come from a brigade based in Pinellas Park — will be ready to help with duties ranging from communications to flying helicopters to helping police with security and, if necessary, civil disturbances.
Tampa police, who plan to have 3,000 to 4,000 local and out-of-town officers working each day of the convention, hope it will not come to that.
"While the National Guard has offered to send a large contingent of personnel during the RNC, we anticipate utilizing a smaller number to assist with traffic control and stationary security posts," police Chief Jane Castor said in a statement Tuesday.
Still, planning for Florida National Guard involvement at the convention, scheduled for Aug. 27-30, has been under way since November 2010.
"We're relying heavily on the Florida National Guard," Jim Madden, assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said last September during a briefing for the Florida Senate Committee on Military Affairs, Space and Domestic Security.
At the same meeting, the Florida National Guard's adjutant general told senators the Guard will be in Tampa to help civilian authorities — not take over.
"We would never be in lead on this operation," Maj. Gen. Emmett R. Titshaw Jr. said. "We're always there playing a supporting role to civilian and federal agencies to maintain peace, order and public safety, protecting lives and property."
In the worst case, the Florida National Guard would be ready with a task force of up to 300 personnel trained to handle the aftermath of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosives emergencies.
"We will have search-and-rescue teams, extraction teams, decontamination teams and medical triage capability" through that task force, Titshaw said.
In addition, if circumstances require that the military presence be ramped up, the Guard will have personnel to receive, brief, stage and integrate those additional troops into convention operations. And its units have their own robust communications, including a cellphone network in case others go down.
"We can put a 5-mile bubble around any event," Titshaw said.
Many of the Guard personnel deployed to Tampa are likely to come from the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Pinellas Park. The Guard plans to piggyback some convention-specific training onto the regular training it will conduct before the convention.
At the same time, as the Guard prepares for the 2012 hurricane season, it is specifically considering what it would need to do if it had troops in Tampa and a hurricane struck another part of the state.
"We've thrown all of that into our planning," said Ron Tittle, public affairs adviser for the Florida National Guard.
Money for the deployment will not come from the $50 million that Congress allocated to pay for security at the Republican National Convention.
Instead, funds for Guard operations at national political conventions typically come from the Department of Defense.
It's not unusual for the Guard to play a role at national political conventions. Other conventions have seen contingents of up to nearly 2,100 members of the Guard. For protest-heavy meetings of the G8 and G20 groups of nations, the deployments can include as many as 5,500 troops.
In 2008, about 1,600 military personnel helped secure the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. There, units ranged from bomb disposal and explosive detection dog teams to a Marine Corps chemical biological incident response force. On the first day of the convention, as protesters became increasingly aggressive, St. Paul police asked for 150 soldiers from the Minnesota Army National Guard to help with crowd control.
In Tampa, authorities expect up to 15,000 demonstrators, and they plan to assign city police and Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies to work the protests whenever and wherever possible. That's because local officials want to put that all-important task in the hands of officers with a stake in how the rest of the world sees their hometown.
"Our folks will be on the front lines," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "They are the ones who have a vested interest in making sure this is successful."
But the mayor welcomes the Guard's help, whatever form it takes.
"Logistically and from a manpower perspective, I'm glad they're here," Buckhorn said. "I need everybody I can throw at this."
Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.