Gillean Parrish – GoCrisis Associate

I have kept all my notebooks throughout my career as an Emergency Response Professional for an incredible airline, and Wow!… Looking back it was exciting!

The Highlights?

Being given the opportunity to make a difference.  To assist people during their darkest hours of chaos and trauma, to know and understand their needs, and to quietly and confidently guide them through what may be the worst day of their life.  To be the person who was called on to “do the right thing” by our guests, for the company, and for the families of the affected.

We call them “Medical Emergencies”. So many stories, so many lives touched by “just doing my job”. I have responded to these emergencies hundreds of times, but let’s focus on one response, one emergency, one family at a time…


It’s around 21:00. A notification from our Operations Control Centre (OCC) goes off on my phone: MEDICAL EMERGENCY–DIVERSION!

I take a deep breath… my heart races a bit and my hands get a little sweaty, but I quickly gather my thoughts. First things first… get all the information available.  Who, what, where, when, and why, share equal priority.

I contact my OCC, they tell me what they know so far.

The guest having the emergency is unresponsive and travelling with one other person.  They will be diverting into a station where our company does not have boots on the ground.  This means one thing…I won’t be deploying and advising a Special Assistance Team member. I’m it.

I receive the contact information for the guests.

Time to make the difficult call. This is never easy.

I highly suggest being prepared with your narrative in advance; this is a cold call, and you have no idea who will be on the receiving end of the phone.  Be confident in your approach, be calm, be respectful, be compassionate.  The person on the other end of the phone is experiencing trauma.

Within minutes I learn that the guest’s husband has passed away, that she is alone in a strange place, without her belongings, and without her life partner.  It’s not easy to detach yourself from the high emotion of the situation, but it’s critical for you to do so if you are going to be of any assistance.  Rapport is quickly established.  I have become “their person”, their lifeline for understanding and implementing the logistics that will see them through their time of crisis.

I take care of her needs the best I can, despite operating remotely.  I am her support for all things logistical.  Hotel, return flight, information on repatriation, arranging support at outbound airport, support through customs, support onboard, and support at the arriving station.  I also manage her expectations, being honest about timelines and what I can and cannot pay for.

All is going “textbook”.  She is in touch with family back home.  It is time for her to complete this most unexpected and unwanted journey.  The paperwork is done, security is cleared, and her husband’s ashes are in her hands.

But in this particular story, the twist comes at the end.

I get a call from an agent.  Our guest is upset and refuses to board because she has only one seat.  The call from the agent described how the woman was holding tightly to her husband’s remains.  I think about it for a moment, and then I understand… It has been barely a week since our guest’s husband passed, and she is not ready to stow him under the seat or in the overhead bin.  She wants him seated beside her.  With the assistance of the gate agent and crew, an exception was made, and we managed to block a middle and window seat.  Our guest sits in the middle, her husband’s urn wrapped in her sweater beside her in the window seat, both guest and precious cargo belted in, and both heading home together.  She was grateful for our understanding of what she was needing, and for allowing it to happen.  She shared later in an email of gratitude that she was terrified to board alone, knowing her husband had a seat gave her comfort and helped her feel secure.

Even in some of the smoothest activations, unanticipated circumstances can blindside you in the end.  You’ve just been through emotional turmoil, and you’re primed to have the situation finally resolved, but it’s not over until it’s over.

You have to be ready to continue doing your job because the smallest details can have the biggest impact.  From notification to repatriation, taking care of people affected by trauma and crisis is humbling, touching, rewarding, and at times exhausting.  When you can provide the people affected with structure, timely factual information, and a compassionate ear, you are making a huge difference to their suffering.

Listen for what may appear to be the “small things”…“Why is she refusing to board?”.  Manage expectations.  Never over-promise and under deliver.  As we were trying to secure a seat for her husband’s remains and an okay from the captain, our guest was aware that there may not be a second seat available, and that the crew may require stowage for take-off and landing.

Know that your quiet presence and availability to help with the small things, like bringing someone their personal items, helping them contact family, or simply assisting with airport support, can maximize the best possible start to a traumatized person’s long journey of healing.

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