June 19, 2024

Preoccupations: Call Her the Worrier in Chief

Drills are a huge part of this work. Many industries have preparedness exercises. Hotels and other businesses have fire drills, and airlines simulate airplane accidents.

I view people in this type of position as the ones in charge of worrying. I’m always on, 24/7. Regardless of where there’s a crisis in the world, members of my group need to be connected with one another and to see how it impacts not only our operation, but also our crew members and their families.

You never know what will happen in this field; the terrorist attacks of 2001 are a perfect example of that. When the first plane hit, I received a call from a friend working in the control tower at Kennedy Airport who told me the news and that the plane might be one of ours. I called our operations department and learned that it wasn’t. From our former headquarters, my colleagues and I saw the second plane hit the second tower.

I raced to Kennedy and found it in chaos. We were reluctant to leave our customers or crew members stranded, so we decided to treat it as an airplane accident and institute our plan for that. Normally we’d set up a family assistance center, but we set up a passenger assistance center instead and took in passengers from any carrier.

I found a group of 20 teenagers from Belgium, some with special needs, who belonged to a Michael Jackson fan club. Their flight home had been canceled, and they were having a hard time dealing with it. Their chaperones told us that they were running out of funds. When I told the club members that I had been at a Michael Jackson concert the previous night, their eyes got big and their jaws dropped. One of them said, “He sent you?” I was fine with them thinking their hero had sent me, if it helped them cope.

I went on autopilot after the planes hit, and I’ll bet that other people in emergency response did, too. I didn’t get any emotional relief until a few weeks later, when I attended my first New York Mets game after the attacks. When a line of uniformed service personnel walked onto the field with the American flag, I lost it. People nearby asked if I was O.K., and I told them I had been holding my feelings in and just had to cry.

Everyone looks to the people in emergency response as pillars of strength. You’ve got to stay strong and grounded in a crisis, but eventually you have to deal with what you’ve experienced.

You’re also never done with planning. The law dictates much of the plan for accidents, but beyond that you have to come up with your own solutions.

When swine flu hit the United States in 2009, many organizations probably weren’t ready. We ordered hand sanitizer, put extra gloves on planes and trained employees in recognizing symptoms. We also established a procedure for reporting to us and developed a plan for how we’d operate in case headquarters personnel were affected.

The minute you get comfortable, think you’re ready for anything and become overconfident, it’s an indication that you’re not in the right field. You’ve got to stay humble.

When the earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, I set up a task force. We reached out to the Red Cross and to the Haitian consulate in New York. The airport in Haiti was closed, but JetBlue flies to the Dominican Republic, and we knew that it could be used as a port to enter Haiti.

About 130 of our crew members had relatives in Haiti, so we gave money to those employees from our crew member crisis fund. When some crew members traveled to Haiti, we tracked them and had them check in every day so we could make sure they were safe.

WHEN I take a vacation with my family, I like to disconnect and relax. I leave my contact information and my itinerary with people back at work, and I have three managers who are my backups and can assist during a crisis. If needed, I can provide support remotely or even leave and go back to work, but it’s important to disconnect and recharge. At times, I still struggle with leaving it behind. It’s only natural to worry, but it doesn’t consume me. But if your company isn’t 24/7, it’s probably easier to step away.

This work has carried over to my personal life. I live on Long Island. Two years ago, on a day I was at home, there was a tornado watch across the area. The sky turned black and I felt as if I was in “The Wizard of Oz.” I realized that I wasn’t prepared for such an emergency at home. I’ve since assembled safety kits in the cellar for my husband, my baby and me, and I even packed some things in a bag for the dogs. I’m always thinking. It’s just another emergency response plan. 

As told to Patricia R. Olsen. E-mail:

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=13e388ab27629009bd7f36d328ef4b83

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