“I think we need help.”
That simple statement is typically the first communication received by those staffing International SOS’s crisis response center hotline whenever a calamity strikes and companies fear they have employees in danger. Whether it’s political upheaval, such as this winter’s widespread uprisings across the Middle East, or nature wreaking havoc, as it did in Japan’s devastating one-two earthquake-tsunami punch, the ability to respond quickly is key to being able to safely extract personnel from hot spots. Invariably, however, valuable time is lost, because companies aren’t prepared to quickly communicate with employees in danger zones. “The communications part is far and away the most important component to every mission that we run,” says Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue, a Boston-based crisis response company.
When response center staff members get that first call for help, they ask: “How many people do you have in the crisis?” “Who are they?” “What is their manifest information?” Ninety-nine percent of the time, the companies respond by saying: “I don’t know, but I’ll go back and find out,” says Alex Puig, a regional security director for Travel Security Services, a joint venture of International SOS and Control Risks. Often days go by before those companies call International SOS to provide the information needed to help locate their people and get them out of a bad situation. Terrible things can happen during that space of time. In a crisis, “Speed is life,” says Puig. “The sooner you can identify who you have at risk out there, the quicker you can mitigate [the threat].”
The key is a good crisis communications program. That can be achieved by leveraging the appropriate technology, providing staff with the necessary training to use it well, and backing it up with a proper crisis management plan. With those components, you can be “ahead of the curve, so when the smoke starts billowing, you immediately turn and say, ‘This is who we have right now, let’s communicate with them, and get them right out,’” says Puig.
Here’s how a company gets to that point.
The center of any crisis management response is communications technology. Companies need to understand their options and what might work best in a given situation.
Smartphones. In today’s world of split-second communications, the most valuable device is the one found in nearly every businessperson’s pocket. Simply put: the smartphone has revolutionized crisis communications. As long as employees’ BlackBerrys or iPhones can receive a cellular signal or snag a WiFi connection, a company or its security provider can call, text message, or e-mail its travelers and inform them immediately of danger roiling around them.
Smartphones also help companies address one of the most important concerns of crisis communications: how to provide redundancy so that staff have alternative means of getting messages in or out if the first option fails. With smartphones, if the cell-phone voice lines are jammed, travelers may still be able to send and receive text messages or e-mails, which take up less bandwidth. And they may still have access to WiFi even if cell lines are down or overwhelmed.
Smartphones’ data capabilities allow travelers to receive detailed travel warnings and other security-related information in real time from their company or its crisis response contractor. Knowing that the political situation in Bahrain has turned sour before boarding the connecting flight into Bahrain International Airport could be a lifesaver, for example.
GPS technology embedded within smartphones can help companies locate employees as well. For precise tracking coupled with a crisis response center, it may be necessary to purchase software designed for the purpose, says Matthew Freedman, CEO of Indigo Telecom USA, a satellite-based telecommunications provider, which has a software product, called SpaceGuard, that does just that.
SpaceGuard is a Web-based solution that has a client component that can be downloaded onto smartphones and satellite phones for $25 a day per device. In dangerous countries, Freedman recommends that users run the software on both devices. Once installed, the program leverages GPS signals to send location data to response centers via General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and Short Message Service (SMS).
The location information sent includes four kinds of data: longitude and latitude coordinates, time and date, cell tower information, and the device’s battery levels. For added redundancy, the cell tower information can be used to triangulate a person’s approximate location, although it’s less reliable than GPS coordinates, which can pinpoint a person’s location within meters. Cell-tower tracking is only as good as the number of cell towers in the area, which are vulnerable to natural disasters or attacks by militants in places like Afghanistan, says Freedman. The location information is relayed to a crisis response center where it can be overlaid on a map and cross-referenced with intelligence data to determine whether a traveler is in a risky area.
The system can also set up geo-fences to immediately alert users that they’ve entered a dangerous area or left a safe zone. In addition, companies and travelers can choose between either active or passive tracking. During active tracking, which might be used in danger zones, the software transmits its data according to predetermined intervals, such as every ten minutes or every two hours. When the software is set to passive tracking, location data is sent to a response center every 24 hours, whether managed by Indigo or the client company.
But the core part of Indigo’s system isn’t really the tracking, rather it is the ability to get the information to a crisis response center via a data package, text, or voice so that companies can implement their crisis plans. Because the service is Web-based, its data can be accessed from any Internet connection. Thus, small companies can opt to have a virtual response center anywhere, with nothing more than one person sitting behind a laptop that accesses the information, while big enterprises with many employees can have a large security provider or in-house team using it in a crisis command center.
Users also have the option of pushing an SOS button on the device if a situation turns hellish in a flash. When pushed, the SOS application sends the response center the user’s precise current location immediately, along with the coordinates for the previous 24 hours.
The tracking and SOS features help companies fulfill their duty-of-care obligations while reducing their insurance costs. (Freedman is currently in discussions with insurance companies to tie Indigo’s SpaceGuard together with lower insurance quotes for companies sending employees into high-risk locations.) This type of service can be especially critical for such companies as defense contractors, media organizations, and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that send their people into high-risk, potentially lethal situations.