Book excerpt: 'When accidents happen'

Search and rescue expert and trainer Moose Mutlow wrote "When accidents happen: Managing Crisis Communication as a Family Liaison Officer" to broaden the resources available to family liaison officers to draw from and reference during an assignment. "Being a FLO can be a brutal learning experience with so much being learned on the job," he noted. "I wanted to present some of the lessons that I learned to better prepare others to be successful in the job."

Mutlow found the writing to be a cathartic way to process the calls he's responded to, helping him to find clarity in how to improve the role of a FLO.

The role of a family liaison officer

Success for a Family Liaison Officer begins with ensuring that everyone has a clear understanding of the difference between the role of an Advocate and that of a Liaison.

Advocate – person who pleads for another; person who supports or speaks in favor of something

Liaison – person who acts as a link to assist communication or cooperation between groups of people

Looking at these definitions it should be clear what the difference is, and how acting as the family’s – or agency’s – Advocate can quickly become counterproductive within the ICS.

The role of Liaison is anchored in establishing and maintaining communication. A Liaison’s role is about facilitating informative conversations that maintain the family’s privacy and support their emotional safety.

The FLO operates in a highly-energized emotional environment. They need to be constantly aware of how their own emotional response is affecting their performance. The FLO can see themselves as trying to help, but unwittingly drift into pushing a family agenda that cannot be supported by the Incident Command.

In order to steer against this tendency, it is essential that the FLO engage in personal reflection, receive Incident Command Staff support, and be able to articulate the roles and responsibilities of the position. These considerations provide the foundation for remaining effective at liaising

The FLO needs to concentrate on providing corroborated, understandable, and accurate information – guesses, personal opinions, or speculation has no place in this role.

* * *

Example: An agency’s policy is to tow the deceased’s vehicle to help secure personal effects. The bill for the tow is paid by whomever wants to release the vehicle from the impound lot – typically the next of kin. Upon reviewing the situation, the FLO loudly, and publicly, lobbied for the agency to pay for the tow. The FLO became an advocate for the family and chased the outcome the family and the FLO personally desired. This became a contentious point for the Incident Command to deal with, as there had been no discussion about the situation before the FLO essentially made this decision.

Primary responsibilities

A family experiencing the initial shock of the loss of a family member, or the unsettling experience of not knowing where a loved one is, are searching for something to hold onto – a consistent focus point that helps to re-establish a level of structure in their lives that has been violently displaced, or momentarily knocked off a secure footing.

The FLO can be the starting point for re-establishing that foundation.

The FLO focuses on explaining:

  • What has happened
  • What is happening
  • What is going to happen

The Family Liaison Officer is the key role in providing:

  • Support to accompanying family or friends during an ongoing mission, recovery or investigation
  • A defined and buffered communication pathway between family and command/operations
  • Consistent management of the family to ensure that their needs do not adversely affect/distract from mission objectives/operations.
  • Accurate written documentation of meetings with family and ICS

A successful FLO should be able to provide an empathetic presence with an objective overview. While compassion has a role to play, pity can be a difficult emotion to project without patronizing or disrespecting those affected.

* * *

Empathetic objectivity

FLOs have to navigate a fine line in challenging emotional waters – they have to maintain a rational factual approach, while managing the extraordinary emotional situation families/ friends must come to terms with.

Under these circumstances, affected families/friends can display an array of responses and look for people to blame; the FLO can be an excellent target. Alternatively, they may lose all self-maintenance ability and feel incapable of making even the simplest decisions, presenting the FLO with an extreme management challenge.

Maintaining a healthy sense of empathetic objectivity is essential in maintaining your own mental and emotional health, allowing you to effectively carry out the duties of an Incident Command member.

* * *

Professional distance

The FLO is a mission-specific role – one that should not drift into therapeutic solutions or create an air of dependence for a family in crisis. FLOs must have sufficient professional distance to do a difficult job well while remaining human in terms of accessibility and interaction. FLOs need to recognize the complexity of emotional reactions without taking anything done, or said, personally.

To be effective, the role demands a high degree of pragmatism. The intensity of the role often leads to rapid acceleration in a relationship, which can unintentionally quickly devolve into dependency. The role is not one of friendship; it is about professional support with clear boundaries, and ultimately, the termination of the relationship.

An FLO assignment has a beginning and a defined end-point – no FLO should be looking to extend their relationship with the family beyond the boundaries of incident response.

Example: There are firsthand accounts of the FLO role online – in the research for this book included the account of one FLO reflecting on an assignment, who said that although the family in this situation had lost a child they had gained a friend. Any relationship that has mixed professional and personal worlds to this degree is worthy of review – the idea that friendship is kindled through the role is professionally troubling, as any subsequent interactions with the family will always have the reference point of their child’s death as a reminder of how the “friendship” had begun. Arguably on a professional level this is an unsustainable/unhealthy level of deployment to the incident and creates an odd dynamic between the parties that has at its heart tragedy. Deeper connections through time move the relationship into potentially fraught personal territory with clouded lines of communication and allegiances.

Reprinted from "When Accidents Happen: Managing Crisis Communication as a Family Liaison Officer," by Moose Mutlow, with permission

Published by KDP in 2020

Available at Amazon

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