Alternative Dispute Resolution on a Ship

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By Natasha Wilkins, ADR Advisor

The devastation of  Hurricane Sandy created the need for housing to support FEMA and other personnel dispatched to New York City to help with disaster relief.  The solution was to bring in ships to house the relief workers, primarily members of the DHS Surge Capacity Force, staff on loan from other DHS components, and FEMA Corps teams. SCF and FEMA Corps were relatively new initiatives at that time and these workforces were housed onboard the ships for nearly two months until the ships went back in service in late December.

Initially, there were rumors that people were being housed on plush cruise liners. This was definitely not the case. These ships were naval training ships and the living accommodations were less than plush. Both SCF and FEMA Corps were new to disaster operations and the ships were a very different environment for most people. Life onboard the ships required up to 100 strangers to sleep in the same room in utilitarian ship berths, with no privacy, and to share overcrowded bathrooms. They ate together in the ship’s mess hall and, initially, there was little communication with the outside world once aboard the ship, due to lack of cell phone service below deck and no TV or internet. The austere conditions on the ships, long working hours, an arduous mission, and the newness of a majority of the personnel to disaster operations, created conditions for conflicts to arise. 

Both SCF and FEMA Corps had management and mentors to support the workforce on the ships, but FEMA leadership called in ADR to serve as another outlet for them to vent concerns and address issues. I was assigned to the T.S. Empire State docked at the Maritime College in the Bronx, and another ADR Advisor was assigned to assist with the other two ships, docked in Staten Island. ADR was initially dispatched in anticipation of concerns with the physical conditions of the ships, but most of the conflicts that ADR dealt with were actually similar to issues I routinely deal with as an ADR Advisor at a JFO. Some examples include: communication, group dynamics, role clarity, managing expectations, and in many cases, the challenges of being away from family and missing home.  The occasional joint living quarters issue came up, for example, alarm clocks going off at wee hours of the morning disturbing the 100 person birthing area. 

I was able to be a helpful presence by listening to people vent about the joys or frustrations of their day, supporting individuals through conflict coaching and problem solving, and facilitating team discussions when a team needed to come together to resolve an issue. When there was no particular issue that needed my attention, I would grab a tray and some grub from the mess hall, sit down to dinner, and check in with folks to remind them how much their service to the disaster survivors was needed and appreciated. My experience on the ships served to emphasize that ADR services help our workforce overcome challenges in a wide variety of settings so that the focus remains on helping the disaster survivors.

For more information about ADR, please visit our website: http://on.fema.net/components/adr/.

Last Updated: 
07/24/2014 - 16:00
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