When disaster strikes, communication between agency headquarters and field offices becomes even more critical.
Beth Disman, the New York Regional Social Security Commissioner, learned that lesson all too well in the aftermath of the devastating Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Disman, who happened to be in Washington, D.C., when the planes hit, was instrumental in making sure Social Security activities continued in New York in the wake of the attacks.
But, as a federal employee stationed outside Washington, Disman said she was just doing her job.
“Social Security employees are used to dealing with people at the most vulnerable times of their life,” Disman said. “But we could not have anticipated what we were going to be dealing with — the suffering, the emotional loss — around Sept. 11.”
On that day, Disman said “There was no question that I needed to get back to New York.” But she also had to get in touch with other SSA officials in the city, she said, which presented its own set of challenges. Ten years ago there were fewer mobile phones and a greater reliance on landline communications.
In fact, one of the New York SSA offices was located in a federal building just steps away from the World Trade Center site, she said.
The thought “How are we going to do our jobs now” flashed through her mind, she acknowledged.
But, “there was no question that Social Security would be up and running and that we had to show that government was there and that government had to be able to deal with … the emergencies,” she said.
In the end, New York’s SSA offices only closed their doors on Sept. 11 and Sept. 12. “We actually opened all of our offices two days later, except for the offices in lower Manhattan,” she said. “All my employees were relocated to other Social Security offices. And we created a command center in our Grand Central [Station] office.”
While communication between headquarters and regional offices is always valuable, during a crisis event like Sept. 11 it was crucial. “This was an unbelievable cooperative coalition between a headquarter and a region to have things get done,” she said.