Wednesday, April 11, 2018

What's a Duty Officer?

Imagine you're an American citizen, and something bad happens while you're in a foreign country. You need help, and you're not sure how the local system works. You may not even speak the local language. What do you do? Sometimes, the answer is, "Call the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate." If you call during working hours, someone in the Consular section who works in American Citizen Services will assist. If you call on off-hours, though, a Duty Officer picks up the phone.

There's no one set person (or even office) who is always responsible for the Duty Officer role, as the hours are tough: after-hours on weekdays and the entire weekend for a full week. So we at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, for example, take turns. Last week, it was my turn.

While I was a Duty Officer, I was responsible for a duty phone. (Of course, it's an iPhone. The State Department is crazy about iPhones.) I would receive calls on that phone (usually redirected from the generic Embassy number), and I'd have to verify that the caller was a U.S. citizen, gather essential information, analyze the situation, and address it or refer it to someone else.

Serving as a Duty Officer made me appreciate just how tough Consular work can be, and I didn't even get the most labor-intensive (e.g., going to visit someone in prison) or most technically difficult (e.g., U.S. citizen needs help but doesn't speak English) cases. I did take a call at 1:17am on a Saturday, deflect questions from a guy trying to get medical advice out of me, help find a missing soldier and get him home, and assist a grief-stricken spouse whose husband died. It's interesting but stressful work requiring a lot of compassion and patience.

It was all worth it, though, just to hear someone on the other end of the line say, "I'm so glad there was an American here I could call." After all, it's one of the most important reasons the U.S. government bothers to send diplomats overseas - so we're there when there's an American in need. Although I won't deny a huge sense of relief at handing the duty phone to someone else, I'm proud to have contributed my own small part to the Consular effort.

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