The following account comes from Lieutenant Commander Christopher O’Neil, chief of media relations at Coast Guard headquarters and currently assigned as Public Affairs Officer (PAO) for Homeland Security Task Force Southeast (HSTFSE). This entry reflects his first couple of days down in Miami overseeing the public affairs side of things as the task force was formed. As the task force continues its work supporting United States government Haiti relief operations, we will share LCDR O’Neil’s field notes with you as they come in.
“At some point in your career reality gets in the way of how you see yourself. Knowing the need for seasoned communicators would be immense, I was anxious to deploy and do my part to tell the story of the Coast Guard’s role in the international disaster relief mission for Haiti. After three incredible days of seeing our public affairs specialists, public affairs officers and our operational commands bring that story to life, I finally got the green light to get “downrange” and help. It was right about then, when I saw the orders to support Homeland Security Task Force Southeast in Miami, Fla., that I realized that my days of being in the field and on the edge have been over for awhile, and my assignment is where the service needed me most – because there’s a small army (less than 100) of incredibly talented public affairs specialists who are a lot younger and more technologically savvy than me, and they’re better off in the field than shuffling paper, coordinating messaging and developing requests for forces and resources.
Coming to Miami is a homecoming in a way, after spending three years here with the greatest public affairs crew a PAO could ever ask for, everything is so familiar, even though two years have passed since I transferred. Lots of familiar faces and everyone seems happy to see a headquarters pogue deploy for the cause.
No sooner than I arrive and say hello, it’s off to a meeting with members of the unified command for Homeland Security Task Force Southeast, the organization I’m to support while in Miami. This too is familiar territory, as a significant amount of my time while in the 7th District was dedicated to updating the public affairs products for the task force. An introductory e-mail from Lt. Cmdr. Matt Moorlag, the current 7th District PAO, gets things moving and before I know it the cell phone is ringing and I’m hearing the familiar voices of good friends and colleagues from the other Department of Homeland Security component agencies represented on the task force here in South Florida.
Miami is a unique place to work as a federal communicator because of the close working relationships the partners have here that I believe are unmatched anywhere else in the country. The level of cooperation, focus on mission and unity of effort displayed here day-in and day-out, through routine and crisis, is unparalleled and it really is great to be back, I just wish circumstances were different.
An 0600 video teleconference with U.S. Southern Command got Saturday off to an informative start. The rest of my day was spent coordinating with other public affairs elements throughout the government and developing plans to support the public affairs needs of HSTFSE. We’ve established a virtual, Joint Information Center, allowing the PAOs of the task force’s component agencies to remain connected and aligned without having to worry about connectivity, office space and all the challenges associated with creating a JIC. I’ve commandeered a desk and workstation and so made a quick sign that also doubles nicely as an eye exam chart – talk about alphabet soup/acronym city (choose your euphemism). The good news is we have a little time before the task force’s ops tempo will pick up, but word came today that we’ll need to find a good location for the Joint Information Center and media operations center to support the unified command as early as Wednesday.
The rest of my afternoon was spent pouring over billet codes, organization charts and equipment lists to ensure enough people and supplies would be on hand, yet, would fit in the spaces allocated.
I hope I’ve struck the right balance. I’ll keep you posted.”