When employees are caught in a crisis like the Egyptian political upheaval or Japan's earthquake and tsunami, a company has to be able to quickly communicate with them and help them get safely out of the danger zone.
“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.
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.
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.