AMU Environmental

That’s Tough!

By Dr. Carol Pollio
Riding down in the hotel elevator this morning, a young woman, seeing me in uniform, asked me if I “jumped out of helicopters ‘n’ stuff”. I said, “No, I don’t.” Then I added, “My job is to try and make everybody happy” and smiled. She replied, “Wow, that’s tough! That’s a lot harder than jumping out of helicopters!” I couldn’t agree more! Communication is the role of the Liaison Officer (LNO) and “making people happy” is much of what I have been doing every day here in the Gulf.

Day-to-Day Responsibilities
As a Liaison Officer, I am assigned to facilitate response operations in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Stationed at the Santa Rosa County Emergency Operations Center (EOC), I work with county and local officials and community leaders on a daily basis to keep the lines of communication open. My day is filled with meetings, briefings, and conference calls. Most days I also find time to visit “my” beaches and check-in with the beach cleanup crews, surveillance teams, and site safety officers. Two nights per week I brief the Assistant Secretary of DHS on issues in my AOR (area of responsibility – in this case, Santa Rosa County). But, as I said earlier, most of what I do is try to make things work and help make everyone happy, or at least satisfied that we’re doing all that we can to respond to this emergency. I ask for input and follow up on questions my constituents might have. I track down the ‘right person’ for a question and pass it on to them. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s important to be here and do what I can to improve communications and cooperation.
The Challenges of Being an LNO
The hardest part of my job and the most important, by far, is simply listening. There are many impacts of disaster, but often people forget about the social, economic, and emotional toll these events have on area residents. Being able to provide a sounding board for people’s frustration can be challenging and it must be done with sincerity and respect for each situation and individual. Sometimes, this can be difficult, because emotions are high and you may be the first person to bear the brunt of their anger. I read once that all anger is an outward expression of fear. That certainly has proven to be true, especially in disasters like this one, where we may not know the full extent of the damage for some time. This is definitely true here in the Gulf, as we watch the day-to-day efforts to cap and kill the leaking oil well. One of the most persistent rumors here in the Gulf is that of “undersea oil”. Many believe that there are rivers or lakes of oil on the bottom of the Gulf or still in the water column, waiting to “bubble up” and wash ashore. I know that this rumor causes fear and apprehension, because I am asked this question every day. I have had briefings by scientists that indicate such a behavior in oil of this type would be highly unlikely and they have never seen it happen. On the other hand, I am a field biologist and know that some things don’t work the same way in the field as they do in the lab. So my answer is that of a scientist – I don’t believe that this light oil would behave that way, but I can’t really rule it out, either. I can only hope (and express this to the person asking) that the rumor is false. Dealing with rumors, anger, and fear is the greatest challenge of being an LNO.
Humor – Sometimes It’s the Best Medicine
The best part of my job is working with people. To do this job, you absolutely must like working with people! I am a strong believer that (appropriate) humor can go a long way toward comforting people and building relationships. There have been some funny stories I have heard since my arrival, and I have used those stories to get a laugh here and there, and to break down some of the barriers I’ve encountered. In talking with the oiled wildlife call dispatcher, I learned that someone had called in several downtown pelican statues as oiled birds at least three times. (I guess that’s like the old phone prank line, “Is your refrigerator running?…Then you better get out there and catch it!”) Another smile comes when I see local businesses advertising ice cream with “tarball topping” or “Damn the tarballs, we’re still diving!” posted at a scuba diving shop – it shows the humor and also the resilience of the folks down here. One thing you can definitely say about Floridians – they are survivors!
Lastly, I want to say that it has been a pleasure working with AMU graduate Daniel Hahn these past few weeks. I’ve recorded a brief discussion with him, where he talks about his experience on the incident and some of the issues that have been troublesome for him and for Santa Rosa County. Things don’t always go smoothly, and as anyone that has been on an incident, or even an exercise can tell you, it’s communication that either makes or breaks an incident. So in the spirit of communication, I hope you enjoy Daniel and my conversation on the Deepwater Horizon incident as much as we enjoyed making it.

Dr. Carol A. Pollio has actively served in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve for the past 27 years and holds the rank of Commander. She is currently the Field Operations Supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region, where she manages 13 Ecological Services field offices from Maine to Virginia.
Dr. Pollio is also the Program Director for the Environmental Studies degree program at American Military University.

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