In 2005 the Senate Foreign Relations committee received testimony about the actions of the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs to the Tsunami in Asia. They learned that the State Department had a consular task force to handle inquiries from American citizens within 24 hours. In the first week consular officials handled 30,000 inquiries about missing Americans. Of those tens of thousands of initial inquiries, they dealt with 15,112 inquiries on specific individuals trying to determine they had perished.
This remarkable response was facilitated by CA’s standing practice of keeping “fly-away” teams on standby for crisis response. In the tsunami case, given the distance from Washington to the impact zone, CA initially deployed personnel to affected areas from neighboring Asian countries. We then sent in personnel from Washington as well as some from elsewhere who had specific language fluency. As in many crises, consular personnel were frequently assisted by locally resident American citizens who volunteer their services to help fellow citizens through the “warden” program. The volunteer wardens were helpful in getting messages to other Americans asking them to phone home and reassure loved ones that they were okay.
As rapid and well organised as their response had been however, the State Department recognised that the use of digital technology was essential to improving their ability to reach Americans in like disaster scenarios. Twelve years later State’s digital engagement team used Reddit, Facebook and the @travelgov and the @USAinUK to locate and assist Americans during the attacks in the city of Manchester. The people at Consular Affairs in Washington DC and in embassies around the world are always looking for ways to improve their response to emergencies.