THE MAGAZINE

Planning for Tumultuous Times

By Matthew Harwood

 

 
Planning and Programs
 
Crisis response professionals hammer home the message that companies must do more than buy equipment or contract for services. Unfortunately, many companies have a consumerist attitude to crisis management. They “write a check and say, ‘If there’s a problem, we’ll call you,’” says Global Rescue’s Richards. “Those clients frankly are not going to be as successful in a disaster or crisis-type situation as companies that take these threats seriously.”
 
Companies don’t have to go it alone. Travel Guard and other service providers can work with them to draw up their crisis management employee rescue plans and then communicate them to staff. At a minimum, they say, the plan for extracting employees from remote danger zones should address the following: Knowing where employees are and training them to know what to do. Good intelligence collection and dissemination are also important, as is having a crisis team that can spearhead decision-making efforts if an incident arises.
 
Where they are. When natural disasters occur, as they did in Haiti and Japan, or when political tensions erupt into violence, as in the Middle East, companies shouldn’t be scrambling to find out where their employees are and how to contact them. They should have a system that can ensure they’ll have that information at hand. And that takes more than the technology already discussed.
 
“It all starts with your ability in a very timely manner to identify your travelers, know where they’re going, know when they’re going, and know how long they’re going to be there and when they’re going to return,” says Puig.
 
Most companies won’t opt for services like Indigo’s that can track in real-time, however, because of the cost and perceived level of need. They will instead rely on travel management companies (TMCs) to have a database with each employee’s travel plans. In this case, companies should work with their TMC to ensure that they get detailed itineraries from their employees.
 
They should make sure to track all travel, not just air, says Rose. “You may fly into one area and catch local transportation to [another location] two, three, four hours away; so you’re nowhere near where they think you are.”
 
If possible, employees should also be required to list the types of daily local ground transportation they plan to use should a terrorist attack target transportation facilities, as it did during the London Tube bombings in 2005; that information could help crisis response providers assess whether a company’s employees were likely to be there. 
 
Hotels should also be listed. The reason lodging information is a critical piece of information within any crisis management plan was illustrated by events in Egypt. When Mubarak’s regime shut down the country’s communications infrastructure, Puig says, International SOS resorted to calling the land lines of places the clients said they were staying. When cellular and Internet networks go down, and a person doesn’t have a satellite phone, the landline is the fallback position, he says.
 
International SOS staff members were frequently successful in reaching stranded employees of client companies by calling landlines at dorms, office buildings, and hotels. Once they had their client on the phone, International SOS could prepare them for evacuation.
 
Training. Communications technologies are only as good as the people using them. Before a company dispatches employees into an unfamiliar place that could turn dangerous with little warning, management should make sure they know, for example, the difference between a smartphone and a sat phone and when one’s preferable over the other.
“Every time you implement technology, you have to implement a training system and a policy behind the technology to make sure everybody knows how to use that as well,” Schafer says.
 
Companies also need to arm employees with vital information, such as whom to contact if things start to go south. That way, even if the company can’t locate the employee, at least it can be assured that person knows how to reach out to the crisis response provider.
 
Rose says that every company should require traveling employees to have its crisis response provider’s contact information in as many places as possible, including their wallet or purse, phone, and laptop. That makes it more likely they’ll have the contact information at hand when it is needed.
 
Staff also need basic training in how to detect early signs of trouble so that they can get out before it’s too late. Training should teach staff how to identify what is dangerous and what to do.

Intelligence. Companies can help employees with intelligence. One source of that type of information is the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), which companies can join, says its Executive Director Peter Ford. OSAC, which was set up in 1985, is a joint public-private partnership between the State Department and American organizations operating overseas; it allows the government and participating organizations to share security-related information.
 
To better facilitate quick information sharing on a local level, OSAC has created more than 140 country councils. “It gives you the latest on-the-ground information,” says Ford. Through the councils, members can get together and discuss the intelligence. In Libya, the country council met two weeks before the actual evacuation to start making contingency plans for that possibility. These types of resources can be incredibly valuable to smaller companies that can’t afford security directors or staff, says Ford. They can leverage the security intelligence and knowledge of larger organizations through OSAC.
 
Teams. Companies must also designate and train crisis management teams. Too often, a company thinks it has checked off this task box when what it has is just a roster of company names and their contact information, say crisis response providers. “I’ve been on the phone with so many customers that are struggling to even make a decision...because they don’t have a properly trained crisis management team,” says Puig. “It becomes a yelling match to see who has the best idea and who yells the loudest is perhaps who wins.”
 
Crisis teams must get appropriate training, including scenario-based exercises. They must be ready to adapt to a range of situations, and they must have the authority they will need to be effective.
 
Natural disasters like the Haitian earthquake, the volcanic eruption over Iceland, and the Japanese tsunami as well as man-made crises such as the political unrest across the Middle East demonstrate how a crisis situation can strike anytime, anywhere. Companies that prepare have a greater chance of getting employees out of danger zones safely. Those that don’t will face legal liability, lost productivity, and worst of all, harm or death to their most important asset—their people.
 
“The best mitigation for crisis is preparation,” says Schafer. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
 

Matthew Harwood is an associate editor at Security Management.
 
♦ Photo by Loimere/Flickr

 

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