The possibility of an evacuation of personnel and their families from a manmade or natural disaster keeps many security directors up at night. Evacuations are logistical ballets, where all moving parts must be practiced and happen in just the right order to be successful. And the plans must also include contingencies for the unexpected black swan events.

Evacuations, as many who have been around the “global” block know, are always last resorts and are never “only security” or “only medical” events. They are always a combination of the two. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti is a prime example, as workers, expatriates and their families dealt not only with injuries sustained in the quake itself, but also with the deteriorating public health conditions and the unraveling of the social fabric – resulting in serious threats to personal safety.

Evacuations all take meticulous planning, both on the part of the organization whose employees are affected and the assistance provider.


Duty of Care

Globalization is leading more and more companies to do work in higher risk locations, but that’s not necessarily where disaster strikes. Crises in the Middle East, the earthquake and resulting tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan and unrest in several African countries highlighted the need for multi-national organizations to have comprehensive crisis and risk management plans for wherever they do business. It’s also a part of an organization’s Duty of Care to protect their travelers and expatriates and their families from “foreseeable risk,” according to International SOS’s original Duty of Care white paper published in 2009.

Duty of Care includes a successful travel risk management plan. Organizations should assess the level of risk to their employees, while preparing them and the entire organization to respond in the event of a crisis and understand what a successful outcome looks like.

Anticipating threats is key to staying ahead and avoiding evacuations. When a situation arises, raise the risk level profile to make travelers and expatriates in this area aware of the increased risks. While forecasting can be a challenge, it is important to understand the threat environment. Monitor situations to identify drivers of threat (including political, economic and religious) and identify when and at what speed things change and how those changes affect employees and the organization’s next steps.

Evaluating the security threats requires a complete understanding of complex and ever-evolving realities. Threats are broadly categorized by asset category and risk type and include insurgent groups, terrorists, anarchists, organized crime, kidnap for ransom, street crime, protests/demonstrations, armed conflict and war. They can also include natural disasters, industrial accidents, road accidents, disease, workplace violence, product tampering and utility disruption.

Risk exposure varies according to the work performed, the type of industry, the profile of the employee and the locations where the organization operates. In addition, cultural norms and laws that guide companies in taking care of their employees vary widely around the world.


Devil in the Details

When an evacuation is needed, the c-suite may turn to the security department for answers. That’s where the crisis and travel risk management plans come into play. Are all our people safe? Are they all accounted for? Do they have all the tools needed to survive until they can safely leave? In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to be thrown off track. Common derailers include the most capable executives who panic or overact, so managing expectations is critical. But with thoughtful planning and practice, security professionals can sleep better at night knowing that their personnel will be safe.

When an event happens and the call to leave is made, those in the security office will need to help coordinate an evacuation of their personnel. That means having all the important information on hand, including current contact information, locations where their people are staying and a way to communicate with them during a crisis. The devil is in the details, and as the security director, you will likely be asked to provide that information to an assistance provider.

Passport and visa issues by far are the main factors that delay evacuations. Be sure national staff has passports and that foreigners have passports, visa documents and export permits on hand. Newborns of travelers and expatriates should be registered right after birth, as a registration delay could mean a delay in evacuation. In fact, this happened to a few clients during the Egyptian unrest. Explaining to parents of an infant that they had to delay their return home was a difficult and unnecessary conversation.

Planning is an important part of evacuation procedures, and those plans must mesh with the organization’s assistance provider. Practice the plan at least once a year, addressing weak points with debriefing sessions. It’s important that an organization’s crisis management plan complements the assistance carrier’s plans – with no gaps.


When Crisis Strikes

The organization’s assistance provider should be constantly monitoring situations worldwide and have personnel on the ground. Certain events resulting in staff feeling unsafe may trigger an evacuation decision. For example: looting in the streets, rebel forces marching toward a city, government officials fleeing the country and leaving it in disarray, disruption of supplies of water, food, electricity and medication. The security director will have to time the evacuation order before the airspace shuts down, the borders close or the roads become unsafe to travel. Each organization has its own trigger points built into its evacuation plan.

As the situation evolves, and well before the evacuation order is issued, at International SOS, a lead crisis management team is formed and plans are finalized for evacuations, when and if necessary. Members are supported by regional crisis management centers, which assemble specialists and make contact with security and medical professionals on the ground in the problem area. There, the on-the-ground presence will liaise with clients in the danger zone. At the same time, a client liaison group is also activated, with additional reach-out to clients to keep them abreast of the situation and coordinate the response.

Behind the scenes, International SOS will be readying an aircraft or any suitable mode of transportation. Depending on the response, it can range from a small propeller plane to a wide-body jet. Inbound aircraft going may carry NGO personnel and relief workers who are headed toward the crisis, as well as supplies to support humanitarian relief efforts.

Evacuation flights are staffed by security and medical personnel, including doctors, nurses and paramedics. Medical and security events go hand in hand, and one rarely happens without the other. There may be people who are dehydrated, gunshot victims or otherwise injured. There is also the psychological trauma that goes along with many events, which must be quickly addressed.

In the meantime, onward travel for evacuees is booked and hotel accommodations made. Hospital care is also arranged, if needed, after the general health of the evacuees is ascertained. A “meet and greet” team welcomes evacuees.

Just before departure, last-minute checks are made to ensure the airspace remains open and landing is cleared. There’s always a “Plan B,” which could include diverting the flight (and the evacuees) to another airport.

We saw that situation play out in Haiti. Within minutes of the Jan. 13 quake, the crisis management team gathered, and within 24 hours, it was on the ground in the affected area. Medical and security experts quickly reached Port-au-Prince by helicopter, as others addressed logistical challenges and activated a network of pre-established aviation, security and medical providers. Airspace was at a premium, and when the international airport at Port-au-Prince closed, helicopter flights were diverted to a nearby golf course. It’s that kind flexibility that is needed by the employees, the assistance provider and the organization.


Mind the Gaps

Communications is especially important, and also must be part of any organization’s crisis management plan. Both the assistance provider’s and organization’s crisis management teams must be able to communicate with affected travelers and expatriates and pinpoint their locations. Tools can include satellite phones. In recent crises, we have found that while voice and e-mail communications may be down, text messages had a good chance of getting through. Text messages do not replace phone calls, but they can be a vital link in time of need.

In crisis situations, the U.S. dollar is king, so organizations also need to have a plan in place to get cash to their employees and expatriates on weekends and in the middle of the night, if necessary. That means involving the finance team even before disaster strikes, and lining up authorized people who can sign for cash. Travelers will not be able to put items they need on a credit card or use a guarantee of payment. Cold hard cash talks in those situations.

Prepare travelers as much as possible. Every crisis is different, but make sure they read and understand medical and security advice in pre-travel briefings before they leave home. Be able to update them regularly while they are on the move and as situations change. Ensure they know who to contact 24/7. Identify and track people and their movement, and capture important contact and medical information before they travel. Tracking should be an important part of a travel risk management strategy. There is also the need to manage travelers’ emotions and expectations, versus the reality of the situation.

In the end, there cannot be an overemphasis on an integrated risk management plan coupled with an emergency response plan. That’s the best way organizations can protect the safety and well-being of their staff.  


This article was previously published in the print magazine as "Anatomy of an Evacuation: Tripwires, Preparation and Planning."



Common tripwires before, during and after a crisis


Tripwire #1

Internal stakeholders lack an understanding of their roles and responsibilities.

Solution: Ask to present at a senior-level meeting and address key stakeholder departments such as HR and travel. Explain Duty of Care and show your organization’s risk profile. Use real-life threats your organization could have or may have faced to demonstrate the value of funding and resourcing.


Tripwire #2

Executives and employees panic, derailing the best evacuation plan of action.

Solution: Expect this, as in many cases this is human nature. Manage expectations, over-communicate and above all show compassion. Security professionals sometimes forget or fail to remember that not everyone is trained for these situations.


Tripwire #3

Communication is a challenge.

Solution:In Egypt, cellphones didn’t work, but landlines did. In Haiti, text messaging and SMS worked. Adapt and find what works.