This article will run in the RESERVIST Magazine, Issue 1, 2018.
By: Chief Petty Officer Elizabeth H. Bordelon
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Tommy Roman has been a jack-of-all-trades during his Coast Guard career. Liaison, security specialist, safety officer, planning guru, chief, mentor… there’s no job too big or too small for him to embrace with the enthusiasm and quick wit that his shipmates know and respect.
The 2017 hurricane season, however, added a new job title to his extensive resume: Call Center Operator for the ESF-10 Florida Response to Hurricane Irma.
Roman, a civilian employee (and geo-bachelor) at Sector San Juan, Puerto Rico, was on the island serving in the planning section in his civilian role as a port security specialist when Hurricane Irma made landfall on Puerto Rico. He was able to make it back to his family in Florida by the time Irma reached the Keys.
“I was already slated to deploy to New York City for the United Nations General Assembly and POTUS visit in mid-September,” said Roman whose reserve billet is in Sector New York’s Enforcement Division. “I was at my home in Kissimmee with my family, preparing for my next deployment, when Irma hit Florida.”
It would be a quick turnaround in New York for Roman. Hurricane Maria was wreaking havoc in the Caribbean and the Coast Guard was scrambling to deploy assets and personnel the Southeastern United States in response to the widespread devastation left in Irma’s wake. With his civilian work office in San Juan completely destroyed, Roman was ready to jump into response mode but unsure where he would end up.
The Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area decided he would be spending the rest of 2017 in Florida.
Roman reported to the ESF-10 Florida response in October. He was quickly assigned to the Operations Section as head of the Vessel Removal Hotline. The hotline was established for members of the general public to report displaced vessels, check on the status of their personal vessels that were removed by the response, and answer questions regarding criteria for vessel removal.
The first ring came with the initial press release advertising the hotline number.
And the phone just kept ringing.
Roman and his team received more than 3,500 calls in the first two and a half months the call line was operational. Crammed into a tiny office space barely large enough for one workstation, Roman and his team worked seven days a week to handle the influx of callers.
“The [information] provided by state agencies, which was distributed by the local news outlets, and the changing of requirements for vessel removal in the early stages of the response really had people fired up,” Roman said. “We got calls from people that had been told the Coast Guard or FWC was going to pick up all abandoned and derelict vessels, and I had to tell some of them that they didn’t qualify for removal. I was cursed at a lot, and some people called crying. We got a whole range of emotions.”
A seasoned response veteran, Roman has learned to shake off the negative.
“In this job, you can't take it personal.”
But Irma was personal to Roman— he still had extended family on the island.
“I was able to sometimes get through on the phone after the storms passed but was mostly communicating through Facebook and other social media outlets,” said Roman. “Everyone weathered the storms okay, except my Uncle Benny. Things like this are especially difficult on the elderly. With the change to his routine and interruption of services on the island, it was just too much for him, and he passed in late October. Irma and Maria really hit our family hard, and, because of the storms, the rest of the family will be moving to Florida in the next few months.”
With his hurricane deployment in his rearview mirror, Roman has set a course towards retirement. And although he has had some incredible deployments during his years of service, the one thing he will miss the most about the Coast Guard when he finally hands over the watch is the people.”
The decision to continue her career in the Reserve has not come without personal sacrifice. Deployments and military obligations inevitably resulted in missed precious moments in her children’s lives. One key element that allowed the Hiigel’s to deploy and continue their Coast Guard service was a strong support system. The silver lining of the Hiigels’ sacrifice became their children’s grandparents’ advantage, which has nurtured a very special and indestructible bond between generations.
“All responses are different, but all have the same objective — safely doing whatever job it is and getting it done right,” said Roman. “I have deployed numerous times but what I find consistent on every response is the quality of Coasties. Whether active, reserve or civilian, they are all outstanding. I sometimes see the same people from response to response, always doing what we do, which is being ready to perform any job to accomplish the mission of either saving lives or helping the environment. I am very proud of serving with all who respond to the call.”
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Tommy Roman, a reservist with Sector New York, deployed to Florida to support the hurricane relief effort.
Photo by: Chief Petty Officer Elizabeth H. Bordelon