By Wyokemia Joyner
Evacuations from post are certainly not new to the Department of State. Since 1988, the Department has managed more than 350 evacuations in regions around the world. Some of those evacuations have been unexpected and materialized quite rapidly, while others emerged slowly and became known possibilities. Regardless of how an evacuation unfolds, one thing is certain—there are a variety of offices within the Department that stand ready to come together and support those who are affected and transitioning from their post.
“[T]here’s no greater responsibility than taking care of our people,” said Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources Carol Z. Perez. “This is always true, but it’s especially true during challenging times, whether at home or overseas.”
Supporting colleagues and families during tumultuous times is at the heart of Perez’s mantra “taking care of people.” For more than 40 years, the Bureau of Human Resources’ Family Liaison Office (FLO) has put those words into action, particularly during times of need.
“We are here to help,” said Gabrielle Hampson, director of FLO. During her nearly nine years serving in a variety of roles with FLO, Hampson has seen the office support 74 evacuations. “Unexpected departures from post are hard on everyone. FLO plays a pivotal role in supporting evacuees through our understanding of all of the moving parts and our liaison with post, the regional bureau and other key offices.”
Since the start of 2019, FLO has provided evacuation support to posts in five countries, which has included providing a workspace for several Community Liaison Office (CLO) Coordinators. At one point this year, five CLOs from evacuated posts were simultaneously working out of the FLO office at the Harry S. Truman Building in Washington, D.C.
“It really does help to have the displaced CLOs based out of the FLO office so they have a space to continue to support their communities,” said Cecile Mines, FLO’s crisis management officer. “If there are multiple evacuated CLOs here at one time, as we experienced this year, it leads to information sharing not only between FLO and the CLOs, but among the evacuated CLOs themselves.”
Having this type of support can be critical for CLOs. When the embassy community in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, experienced three evacuations within eight months, CLO Coordinator Craig Wirick leaned on the FLO’s team for guidance. Although Wirick had been part of the first evacuation as a community member, he did not have any prior experience supporting an evacuation as a CLO.
“My first day on the job as CLO, I went to an Emergency Action Committee [EAC] meeting, and the EAC unanimously agreed to request evacuation. On my third day as CLO, we started the second of our three evacuations from post, which was a voluntary evacuation,” Wirick said. “FLO has been there pretty much every step of the way. I’ve spent most of my tenure as CLO being evacuated, and people in FLO basically trained me and provided me with resources to help support my community.”
According to FLO’s Unaccompanied Tours and Evacuation Officer Courtney Colbert, communication among stakeholders is essential to achieving a successful outcome in crisis response situations.
“FLO’s most important role is sharing information and resources to those impacted by evacuations,” she said. “People always have lots of questions about allowances, where they can stay, options for child care and how they’re going to pay for everything.”
The information that FLO shares often comes from close coordination with partners, including subject matter experts in Comptroller and Global Financial Services (CGFS); the Bureau of Administration’s Offices of Allowances, Overseas Schools and Transportation and Travel Management; the Bureau of Medical Services; the Operations Center’s Crisis Management team; DGHR’s executive office; regional bureau executive offices; as well as other agencies like USAID. These offices often come together to host town halls and frequent follow-up conference calls in order to collectively share information with evacuees as soon as possible.
CGFS works in close coordination with FLO. Based out of Charleston, S.C., CGFS manages the Subsistence Evacuation Allowance submissions and processes payments for evacuees. During an evacuation, it is important that people have a clear understanding of what is authorized.
“FLO is front line support when there’s a town hall,” said Jeff Harper, supervisor of Central Allotment at CGFS. “They outline the process, and then evacuees work directly with us.”
Close coordination and dissemination of information to the evacuees from all of these offices are key, as evacuations often unfold quickly and require juggling many priorities at one time. In addition to packing, working with post to book flights, taking children out of school and subsequently leaving one’s overseas’ home within a short period of time, evacuees are also trying to sort through the rules and regulations that come with moving and establishing a temporary home base during an evacuation period.
“I worked very carefully with FLO and other offices in Washington throughout the evacuation process,” said Cheri Vaughan, a CLO coordinator with Mission Iraq. “FLO was instrumental in helping me get my feet on the ground immediately. They offered office space and a host of subject matter experts to help me answer questions for my community.”
Being a central source of information is what makes FLO a go-to source for employees and family members during an evacuation. It is not just the administrative side that FLO supports; it is also the impact evacuations can have on employees and family members’ personal lives. Those evacuated from post have to manage not only the logistical side of an evacuation but also the stress and emotional toll of dealing with the unknowns that come with an evacuation.
FLO has worked with Angela Pan, a post management officer in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, on more than a dozen evacuations. “Until working in the bureau’s Executive Office, I didn’t realize the huge role that FLO plays,” said Pan. “They’re involved in so many functions critical to the well-being of the embassy community at large, and particularly at times of crisis.”
“We can be your guide. We can walk you through it,” said Colbert. “We want to make sure people have solid information and support from the beginning.”
For more information on how FLO can assist the Department with the evacuation process contact FLOAskEvacuations@state.gov.
Wyokemia Joyner is the communications and outreach officer in the Family Liaison Office.