By Chris Meade, Merlyn Schultz, Fany Colon de Hayes, and Clarece Polke
Videos courtesy of the Operations Center’s Office of Crisis Management and Strategy
On January 23, the Chinese government announced it would lock down Wuhan, stopping all transportation throughout the city to slow the spread of a novel coronavirus. By the time the sun rose the next day, the Department of State was already working to send its first evacuation flight, fully equipped with a biocontainment unit, to bring home private U.S. citizens and staff working at the consulate. The Wuhan closure began what would become a five-month marathon during which the Department would assist in repatriating more than 100,000 U.S. citizens from 139 different countries. Three Department-level task forces—Wuhan Evacuation, the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship, and the Global Repatriation—were central to the Department’s efforts, with bureaus setting up their own internal task forces to complement and contribute to the Department’s task force.
With the Operations Center’s Office of Crisis Management and Strategy (CMS) as its indispensable lynchpin, a task force serves as the Department’s crisis “mission control.” By assembling all stakeholders in the same room, the task force breaks down silos, fosters teamwork, and ensures that everyone is united to accomplish one mission in real time.
“I view the task force’s role as synthesizing and focusing on what the problem set is, and most importantly, providing leaders options for decision-making,” said Carlos Matus, acting director and principal deputy assistant secretary for Diplomatic Security (DS).
The experts vary according to the nature of the crisis, ranging from natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes, to human-made problems like terrorism and civil unrest—and everything in between. Typically, they include representatives from affected regional bureaus, as well as DS, Consular Affairs (CA), and Global Public Affairs (GPA). Other bureaus and offices, such as the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM), Bureau of Medical Services’ Directorate of Operational Medicine (OpMed), and the Office of Logistics Management (A/LM), will also play critical roles. The task force further serves as the interagency touchpoint for coordination across the government.
“Teamwork is at the heart of any task force,” explained Dr. William Walters, OpMed’s deputy chief medical officer for operations.
During the Wuhan evacuation, nearly 200 U.S. citizens were prepared to depart Wuhan on a flight staffed by an OpMed team. At the last minute, local officials rescinded customs approval for everyone previously authorized to evacuate, and the passengers were abruptly taken off the tarmac. Members of the task force listened intently to a speakerphone with medical experts from OpMed as flight clearances were about to expire. Families had been in the airport for hours, babies were crying, and local officials shouted instructions in the background. If the task force did not orchestrate the plane’s immediate departure, passengers could have been stuck in Wuhan indefinitely.
“There were times that there were policy friction points as to whom the Chinese Communist Party would allow to leave China,” said Walters.
In this particular case, the sticking point was that many of the passengers were U.S. citizen children—including infants—who were being escorted by their Chinese national grandparents. This required negotiation with the Chinese government, which was approving travel on a case-by-case basis.
“We opened a communications link that tied everyone together—the Wuhan Evacuation Task Force in Washington, the task force in Beijing, us on the ground in Wuhan, interagency partners, and we could bring Under Secretary [Brian] Bulatao and Deputy Secretary [Stephen] Biegun into the conversation in real time,” said Walters.
After high-level discussions between Chinese and Department officials, the flight was allowed to depart.
“Without the task force in Washington working in real time with Task Force Beijing and the team on the ground, there’s no way that operation would have been successful,” said Walters.
As the Wuhan example illustrates, resolving consular issues is often a major focus of a task force’s work.
“When it comes to a crisis, every single employee of the Department becomes a consular officer in some way,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizen Services Karin King.
This was particularly true in the Repatriation Task Force case, where posts overseas, domestic offices, and interagency partners worked collaboratively to achieve the overarching mission of repatriating U.S. citizens. Consular Affairs repurposed almost all the Office of Overseas Citizen Services to support this effort.
“It was all-hands-on-deck,” said Rob Romanowski, division chief in the Consular Affairs Overseas Citizens Services directorate. “We formed a lot of specialized teams for this effort, including a team for our congressional response, a specialized team to help posts with their flight manifests, another team working on their promissory note tracking, and at the same time we also had a team keeping track of the cruise line issues.”
To evacuate the Diamond Princess cruise ship, for example, the task force liaised with consular officers in Embassy Tokyo, connecting Japanese officials, the interagency, and allies with affected passengers.
Peru presented unique logistical challenges for the Repatriation Task Force, given its huge popularity as a tourist destination. When Peru closed its borders with little notice, thousands of U.S. citizens saw their return flights canceled and sought repatriation while thousands of Peruvians in the United States wished to return to Peru.
“There is no way A/LM could have coordinated all evacuations on our own,” said Scott Tiedt, director of A/LM’s Transportation Management Division. “There is a large charter industry we routinely leverage when we repatriate U.S. citizens to the United States. This evacuation was unique in that we also leveraged the regularly-scheduled commercial carrier industry to include U.S. flagged carriers.”
The task force helped Department logisticians sync with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Department of Transportation, and the Federal Aviation Administration to accept passenger manifests and obtain flight clearances on short notice.
“It went from one to two charters, ballooning exponentially to managing requirements all over the globe,” said James Smollen, A/LM’s airlift project manager. “It was an added help to lean on OpMed and U.S. Transportation Command to help augment our capabilities.”
During the initial phase of a crisis, the volume of phone calls and emails urgently requesting action or information can quickly overwhelm post.
“A task force provides a relief valve for post to consolidate the interagency efforts for whatever post needs,” said U.S. Army Major Andrew Kemp, chief of state-defense integration assigned to the PM Bureau. “Instead of post getting bombarded by interagency and other partners directly, inquiries are channeled through the task force so that there’s only one line of communication between post and the Department to keep post from being overwhelmed.”
While attempting to repatriate 60 private U.S. citizens and four embassy personnel from Serbia, the Repatriation Task Force coordinated a 4:00 a.m. call between Embassy Belgrade, Serbian Airlines, CBP, and TSA to secure Los Angeles International Airport landing clearances for a loaded flight standing by to depart Belgrade.
Providing timely, accurate information to key stakeholders―especially the American public—is critical in a crisis. Task forces bring CA and GPA together to synchronize and amplify public communications.
“GPA works to ensure that CA messaging—often very life-saving communication—is carried out to the world for as many people to see and hear as possible,” said Mike Zeltakalns, director of crisis response for GPA.
As a global problem that struck almost simultaneously, the COVID-19 pandemic presented unique challenges.
“We had to really beef up our ability to communicate directly with the public and Congress,” said CA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Ian G. Brownlee. “We were getting enormous amounts of interest from both the public and Congress, and we had to be able to respond in something approaching real time.”
In conducting foreign policy, “the number one mission of our Department is to protect U.S. citizens and property abroad,” added Zeltakalns. Task forces remain an indispensable tool for doing so.
“Few things are quite as rewarding as participating in task force efforts to support U.S. citizens in need,” said Lisa Kenna, executive secretary in the Office of the Secretary. “By partnering with colleagues of diverse backgrounds and skillsets to achieve a top priority mission, task force volunteers sharpen their crisis management and response skills and build professional relationships that last a lifetime. I encourage everyone to volunteer for a task force when the call goes out.”
Chris Meade is a crisis management officer with the Operations Center’s Office of Crisis Management and Strategy. Merlyn Schultz is a Foreign Service officer and graduate student at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Maj. Fany Colon de Hayes is chief of the Assignment Policy and Joint Officer Management office at Headquarters, U.S. Air Force. Clarece Polke is a consular officer at Embassy Kingston.