We talk about it, write about it, have it on our EOC organization charts, but what does it really mean to be a liaison? What are the best ways to use these people and positions?
My first military assignment was as an infantry officer serving in a combat engineer battalion. As such I supported a mechanized infantry battalion when they were on field maneuvers at Fort Hood, Texas. In that era we spent half of our time in the field so I got lots of experience in being a liaison in another organization’s command post. Yes, the principles are all the same.
The primary goal is to have eyes and ears on what is going on. Disasters are fluid, and discerning the situation and its ramifications is not easy. By having a person in another organization’s EOC or other facility physically, you have the ability to measure what is happening and the pace of the activity. And you have to discern if you will be providing resources or receiving them.
Before there is an actual request for resources that needs to be coordinated, the position of liaison is primarily one of listening, watching, and monitoring the status boards in an EOC.
The other side of the coin is having liaisons from other organizations present in your facility. It can only help, especially when those liaisons are from another high-level organization that might be called on to support emergency and disaster response operations. In quick-moving disaster situations, the flow of information can be fast and furious with plenty of opportunities for items of information to get twisted around. Having someone to talk with face-to-face can be invaluable in eliminating misunderstandings and resolving conflicting information.
But people who are not confident in their response capabilities might not want other people in the room “looking over their shoulder.” The exchange of liaisons all boils down to obtaining a level of trust between people over time.
One excuse I’ve heard repeatedly from people for not placing liaisons in other organization’s EOCs is that they don’t have the staff to do it. They are thinking too small. Typically I’ll agree that you will not be able to place an emergency management staffer of your own in another organization’s EOC. But you can find other staff who don’t have a disaster function, such as intergovernmental staff, who are good with people and attuned to politically sensitive situations. There are other associated staff — risk managers, for instance — who might be of assistance.
Being a liaison requires being active, but not intrusive, in another organization’s operations. Besides finding out situational information and relaying it back to the people who sent you, you are looking for opportunities where your parent organization might have staff, equipment or other resources that can help the organization you are co-located with. It is critical that the agency dispatching the liaison understands what authority it has to offer assistance. In cases like these, it is always better to under-promise and over-deliver so that you don’t set up false expectations for those who are looking for assistance.
You have probably noted that being a liaison is a bit of a dance that needs to be learned. Practicing being a liaison during exercises with people who don’t have an emergency management background, when everything is not on the line, is a good way to get them experience and for them to hone their skills. I assure you that the investment in sending and receiving liaisons will pay off when disasters do strike.