When the brown stuff hits the fan abroad, the safety of U.S. citizens in that country becomes the priority of the American embassy. We don’t have a budget to buy you a plane ticket home, we don’t have the space to let you stay in the embassy, and we don’t have guns to protect you. What we do have is smart, dedicated people who know the local language, legal system, and culture. We also have a great communications network to help you locate your family, so you can arrange your transportation to safety.
I just finished the last module of the consular services training program. This module was called “special citizen services.” The “special” includes helping citizens get to safety when disaster hits, visiting citizens in the hospital and in jail, and communicating with family when a citizen dies overseas. That last one is tough. Can I make a request of everyone? When you travel overseas, please don’t die. Not only is it hard on the Foreign Service officers, who have to identify the body, and locate and notify the next of kin, but it is ungodly expensive for you to ship a body back to the U.S. And your family has to pay for it. The State Department has no budget for that.
We had a big simulation exercise in class yesterday, practicing how to coordinate our efforts when a disaster hits. You would be surprised how complex it can be. A “go team” of Foreign Service officers locates U.S. citizens who have been involved in a disaster, and try to facilitate communication with family and friends back home. In the case of a large disaster involving many people, just locating U.S. citizens is time-consuming. Until we find them, we can’t begin to help with communication. In addition, the Privacy Act of 1974 prevents us from releasing information about U.S. citizens who may have been hurt, kidnapped, arrested, hospitalized, etc without permission explicit. If we don’t have a written waiver, we can’t even tell family members about the well-being of a U.S. citizen. That can be frustrating for worried people trying to get news of their family member overseas.
I want to help people, and I hope that in the event that I have to work on a disaster team, that I am able to do some good. But please, do your part. When you travel overseas, PLEASE register with the State Department, so that if we have to contact your family, we can save some time. Go to http://travel.state.gov/ and enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program program.
And please, please, please, don’t die overseas.