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When Accidents Happen: Who Picks up the Pieces?

This latest guest blog from Moose Mutlow explores how best to sensitively manage and communicate with a casualty's next of kin in the aftermath or during an emergency response scenario. It is a really interesting and important subject, and one that is super useful to know about, whether you are a FLO, first responder, expedition medic or just a keen outdoors person...

“Every time I get deployed it is different. A disappearance with no clues, a fatal fall with family witnesses, a cardiac emergency on a distant trail. I am standing there as a family hears for the first time that their loved one is dead or that the search has now shifted to a recovery operation."

Managing associated family members, friends or associates during an emergency response can be distracting. Sometimes with limited resources available they need to be tapped as responders for searches, rescues or recoveries. When the mission has adequate resources or a technical component it can be preferred to insulate the responders from the families.

Under the Incident Command System the Incident Commander (IC) can assign a Family Liaison Officer (FLO) to help support both the mission and family. The FLO is not a counsellor or therapist. They are primarily a good communicator who is able to act as an agent of Incident Command.

The FLO works to maintain and manage a communication line. They offer the family a consistent reliable point of contact to convey questions or information to the IC without distracting form the IC’s mission focus.

As the Family Liaison Officer I field questions and manage the next steps, listen to recollections of the dead family member and deal with the emotional responses that come with unexpected or traumatic loss. Thinking about the wounded wail a mother makes on hearing her child has been killed makes the hair on my neck rise up as I write this. Bearing witness to such responses is as important as actually bring the body home.

The FLO offers the responders clear insulation from the potential emotional impact of direct interaction with families crisis. This is a critical element in creating a sustainable environment for the responders to work in.

Under some jurisdictions the FLO role is delegated to a commissioned law enforcement officer. This makes sense when the role is tied to the investigative element of a response. In Search and Rescue civilian assignments are used to compliment the uniformed response.

For a FLO to be successful consider the following points:

Integrated into the ICS. If the IC does not give the FLO a direct line to all Incident Command meetings and updates the FLO will become hamstrung and unable to fulfil their role. The IC needs to be invested in hearing where families are at, what they need and commit to trying to fulfil those needs within reason.

Liaison not Advocate. The FLO is an agent of the IC and they represent the operation to the family. While they directly interact with the family they do not advocate to the IC for specific things the family requests. The FLO carries information, helps shape the response and choreographs interactions between the family and Incident Command

Knowledge base. It is helpful, but not essential, for the FLO to have some technical knowledge and experience from field operations. This experience can help appropriately pitch information, answer questions and ground the reality of what families may be facing without pulling mission staff away from the response.

Simple. During a search, or a recovery, explanations should be kept simple and succinct. Families facing crisis may struggle to hear information and process it accurately. Providing written notes to back up meetings helps them to organize their thoughts, recall details and help guide their request.

Termination. The FLO is a transitory role. They help support and inform families in the early stages of a response through to a recovery, but beyond that they plot an exit strategy. Line of Duty Deaths are different but for most SAR operations the FLO ends when the body transitions to the medical examiner or funeral home. To continue the assignment beyond these milestones makes it hard for the role to be healthy and sustainable. A lengthy assignment can create a challenging”friend” dynamic between the family and FLO.

Death often isolates families as outsiders struggle to understand how to engage with affected families. With an FLO agencies can offer that initial supportive presence allowing families to re-establish a degree of stability and functionality at their most desperate moment”

The FLO role can be adapted to different applications and scenarios. The bottom line is that at a point of crisis where families are dealing with loss, or the unknown, giving them a conduit so that they can feel heard, be responded to with respect and get trustworthy information and facts will help the operation in the long run. When families speak into a void they have are left with little alternative but to turn to social media and news outlets to seek answers. FLOs well briefed and supported through the ICS make a positive difference when it matters.

Moose Mutlow has worked in the outdoor industry for more than 30 years as a guide, instructor, ski patrol and trainer. He is the Senior Trainer for Yosemite Search and Rescue Swiftwater Team and is a nationally recognized FLO and Trainer

Find out more:

Moose published “When Accidents Happen” - a manual for FLOs supporting Families in Crisis in 2020.

When Accidents Happen is written to offer a way of tackling the FLO role and offers perspectives on preparation, structure and training. Moose shares his experiences and lessons from decades of supporting people faced with traumatic loss and unresolved disappearance and death.


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