Not all C-suites recognize the tremendous power that smartphones put into their hands. “They’re thinking that a smartphone is just for e-mail,” says John Schafer, crisis response consultant at Neil Young and Associates International. What they don’t realize, he says, is that smartphones integrated with GPS, mapping, and other applications become a crisis management system that can leverage multiple technologies and multiple information systems to gain instant situational awareness.
“Technology enables us to take the most recent information and put it in the hands of people on the ground so they can make individual decisions by themselves when trained properly,” Schafer explains.
Satellite phones. The one caveat with relying on cellular-based smartphone communications is that they can fail or be disrupted. Thus, companies need alternatives that can serve as emergency backup communications devices. Crisis experts recommend a satellite phone, or sat phone, which also provides users multiple modes of communication such as voice, text, and e-mail. “[T]hey’re the only communication method that won’t be shut down by terrestrial disturbances,” says Christopher Falkenberg, president of Insite Security. When an earthquake or a tsunami hits, cell towers break, while satellites orbit safely in space.
Global Rescue’s Richards agrees. “When we deploy, we take sat phones…so we’re not reliant on the indigenous communications infrastructure,” he says. Richards adds that sat phones proved to be a useful alternative in Egypt when the government blocked cell phone communications at the start of the popular uprising that eventually toppled President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
But satellite phones are not impervious to interruption by hostile regimes. Some countries, like Libya, have been known to block their transmissions, and both Libya and Cuba make it illegal to own a sat phone.
There can be natural interference with satellite signals as well. Heavy forests, for example, can present connectivity problems for sat phones as can dense urban areas. “What you need is a clear line of sight to the sky,” Richards says.
Internet. Though Mubarak blocked the Internet as well as cellular communications, an Internet connection can be a life saver when other options have been taken offline. This was the case in Haiti when the earthquake hit in 2009.
“We were actually able to adequately communicate with a lot of people via Skype, because that was a technology working when cell [towers] were destroyed in the earthquake,” says John Rose, president of Business Travel Services for Travel Guard. Also in the case of Haiti, some clients preferred that Travel Guard communicate via Facebook, a communication method the company isn’t that comfortable with because of security concerns, but it accommodated the customer’s requests.
“At this time, Facebook and Twitter [are] not a mode of communication that allows us to put secure data out there about what’s going on in a region,” says Rose. “It’s very hard to crack into a cell phone signal.... It’s very easy for someone to track what someone’s doing on Facebook.” But when cell towers are down, Facebook at least provides a way to get a message across to otherwise stranded personnel if they have an Internet connection.
Another issue with Facebook, however, is that it’s not a real-time two-way conversation. Richards explains that Global Rescue prefers voice communication because they can then receive real-time feedback from a client, which allows his crisis response team to give advice based on what’s happening around the client at that moment.
Rose concurs. Talking directly is also best for the client’s peace of mind, he notes. “We want to call them, calm them down, explain what’s going on, what’s going to happen, and what the plan of action is,” says Rose. With voice, it may also be possible for the crisis-response service provider to connect the stranded employee with family or with a familiar company contact.
Power. The revolution in communications and information technology continues to decrease the likelihood that people will ever be completely cut off. All of these technological options do, however, have one common vulnerability that all crisis response professionals highlighted: the devices that enable them require some form of power to operate. Travelers should always make sure their communications devices have a full charge each day. It’s advisable to keep fully charged backup batteries on hand as well for when charging is not possible.