Terror threat necessitates early evacuation planning

 - February 1, 2007, 10:42 AM

Videotapes from Iraq showing foreign hostages cowering in cages before being beheaded by their terrorist captors provide horrific testament to the danger that can bedevil expatriate employees today. By any definition, occupied Iraq remains a war zone and therefore an extreme example of the sort of workplace to which today’s global companies send their staff. But the truth is that there is now an all
too real potential for danger in almost every corner of the world.

According to the emergency planning division of executive charter company Air Partner International, 51 of the 196 countries the United Nations recognizes are considered sufficiently “at risk” of some sort of crisis as to require evacuation of personnel at some time or other. The UK-based group compiled the list using intelligence supplied by three separate independent security sources, as well as from the U.S. State Department and Britain’s Foreign Office. Of these countries (see map below), nine–the Central African Republic, Iraq, the Ivory Coast, North Korea, Liberia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Zimbabwe–are categorized as “extreme risks.”

So companies with expatriate staff in slightly more than a quarter of the world’s states could find themselves facing the classic “Should I stay or should I go?” dilemma in the event of a looming emergency. Going too early could jeopardize a company’s business interests in the country, while staying too long could result in loss of life and costly recriminations. A growing number of specialist firms, whose goal is to put minds at rest and get employees out of harm’s way if push comes to shove, are offering expert guidance and support to tackle civil emergencies, natural disasters and outbreaks of disease.

Make Plans for a Safe Exit
For Air Security International (ASI)–sister company to Houston-based flight services group Air Routing International–planning is the key to knowing when to evacuate and how to complete the mission safely and effectively. Rather than merely reacting when a crisis breaks, which it will do if necessary, the company prefers to work with its clients to devise a plan tailored to the circumstances of a given location. Clients pay a retainer to ASI to handle its emergency planning and evacuation arrangements.

ASI v-p of operations Charlie LeBlanc told AIN his team will start by determining where staff will assemble in the event of an emergency, what they should be ready to take with them at any given time and what visas or travel permits may be required so they can travel to whichever “safe haven” countries are likely to be the initial destination for an evacuation.

The company does not simply impose these plans on a company’s employees. It consults with the staff about concerns and preferences, and will likely talk through and refresh the plan every year–if only because expats commonly rotate through various overseas postings. “The plan is a living document and we talk through any worries that employees might have, such as what to do with pets,” he explained. “It may seem trivial, but last-minute indecision or argument about what to do with a family dog could ruin an otherwise well planned evacuation. Surprises are bad for everyone concerned, so you run drills with the plan with all the staff involved,” said LeBlanc.

The next phase for ASI is to establish the key trigger points that will lead to an evacuation. About 60 percent of the incidents the company deals with are natural disasters, such as floods or erupting volcanoes, which provide graphic cues about when folks need to get out of town. But in cases of civil strife it can be much more difficult to recognize the appropriate time to begin an evacuation.

Sometimes, the anticipated trigger points won’t be reached if a crisis erupts suddenly, as it did in 1998 when long-standing Indonesian President Suharto resigned after a wave of violent street protests. By contrast, the recent civil war in Haiti escalated more gradually over a couple of weeks and security consultants were able, therefore, to implement their plans in a more systematic way.

“These situations are rarely black-and-white,” said LeBlanc. “For example, let’s say a head-of-state is assassinated; clearly that would constitute a political crisis, but what about an unsuccessful assassination attempt?” ASI strives to establish ahead of time what constitutes grounds for executing an evacuation so that it doesn’t lose valuable time in 11th-hour debates aimed at getting approval from a corporation’s headquarters.

Once the decision to evacuate has been made, the ASI team will decide whether the preferred mode of departure–air, land or sea–is still a viable option. If not, it will revert to a pre-arranged Plan D, which is to hunker down at some relatively safe location until it can evacuate the employees or the crisis blows over. The key point for the ASI planners is to create a plan with layers of redundancy so that it can implement a second or third option if a first-choice option becomes untenable.

While advocating thorough planning, LeBlanc cautioned against plans that go into great detail about every possible contingency. “You need a sound framework for how to react to a situation, and a single notebook generally will be more effective than many volumes,” he explained. He observed that U.S. companies finding themselves newly cognizant of the dangers have tended to take an excessively literal approach to planning, making it likely that their employees could get tied down in excruciating detail and not react quickly enough when a crisis occurs.

Joe Autera, v-p of global security services with MedAire, which made its name as a provider of health support services, also advocated involving employees closely in evacuation planning, but at the same time cautioned that it probably does not pay to share too much specific information too widely out of concern that sensitive details might inadvertently fall into the wrong hands. In addition to planning evacuations, the MedAire team conducts assessments of the security of companies’ offices and residential facilities in risky locations.

Money Talks, Credit Counts
As part of the planning and preparation process, ASI establishes firm lines of credit for clients so a company can immediately order air charter and other services necessary for an evacuation without having to make hastily arranged payments outside regular business hours. It also maintains a list of carefully vetted operators that can provide transportation in a crisis, at pre-negotiated charter rates where possible.

According to Peter Saxton, managing director of Air Partner’s emergency planning division, it is impossible to underestimate the importance of establishing adequate lines of credit. Even the most blue chip of multinationals is going to have trouble paying for an aircraft charter when a crisis breaks in the early hours of the morning on a public holiday.

Air Partner’s core business as a charter broker gives it a strong hand in sourcing the right aircraft at the right time. According to Saxton, the company’s emergency planning clients will have priority access to the aircraft that best fit the needs of a particular evacuation, and its experts will monitor these requirements closely as a crisis begins to unfold.

Significantly, Air Partner always acts as a principal, rather than as a broker, in charter contracts. This means that the buck stops with it rather than with the operator and, barring catastrophic circumstances, the company is committed to providing a flight come what may.

The nationality of an operator and the country of registration of its aircraft can be significant issues. For example, it might not make sense to send a U.S. N-registered aircraft into a crisis zone in which–all too probably these days–it is U.S. interests that are the object of violent upheaval.

Contrary to common assumption, charter rates do not necessarily skyrocket in emergency situations. Air Partner finds that when operators have to abandon planned leisure or business charters to a crisis destination, capacity for evacuation flights actually increases.

In ASI’s experience, it rarely makes sense for companies with flight departments to use their own aircraft for evacuations. This is generally because the aircraft concerned are unlikely to be close to the trouble spot and their crews may not have experience operating to the location. And according to Autera, there is actually a danger of a corporate aircraft crew becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Once the company has formulated the plan and the customer has agreed to it, ASI’s intelligence analysts use their multi-tiered sources to monitor the security and safety situation wherever their clients happen to be (see box on intelligence sources). “They are looking for things that might constitute earlier trigger points of a crisis, such as senior military officers suddenly resigning or an unofficial curfew being imposed,” he explained. “They are trying to connect all the dots to get the best possible indication of what may actually be about to happen.”

In some cases, early trigger points like these might prompt a client to proceed to the first phase of an evacuation, which could be no more precipitous than encouraging non-essential expatriate staff and family members to accelerate vacation plans, leaving the country via scheduled airline service.

When the Going Gets Tough, Airlines Get Going
Generally speaking, emergency planning is based on the assumption that the airlines have suspended services. In the view of the experts who spoke to AIN, when trouble breaks airlines will put the interests of their shareholders and staff ahead of those of their customers.

Take a close look at the small print on an airline ticket. The bottom line is that when the going gets tough it’s tough luck for the passengers because the airline ultimately reserves the right to stay out of harm’s way–as it defines this, and for reasons that could very well be founded on commercial rather than safety concerns. Despite this harsh reality, the only evacuation plan that some companies have is a fully flexible airline ticket in the briefcase of each expatriate executive.

According to LeBlanc, the prelude to what became an increasingly inevitable war in Iraq during 2003 sparked concerns among expatriate employees throughout the Middle East. In this context, the departure of the United Nations weapons inspectors from Iraq was viewed as a significant trigger point for the U.S.-led invasion, prompting some companies to remove some personnel in anticipation of a possible anti-western backlash.

“People tend to go later than is advisable, which can narrow evacuation options and result in using aircraft that are not such a good fit (generally too large) for the operation,” said Saxton. “It is preferable to respond to a crisis with a staged approach and it is generally better to react slightly early, rather than on the late side.”

MedAire’s approach to evacuation planning is to be able to respond to the location becoming unsafe and without airline service at no more than 24 to 48 hours’ notice, as opposed to what Autera said was the more usual timeline of 72 hours. Typically, MedAire’s plans begin with the consolidation of employees and their families at certain locations before moving them on to the safe haven. Like Air Partner, it builds in layers of redundancy to allow for eventualities such as the complete loss of communications.

According to LeBlanc, there is scope for different companies with expatriate personnel in the same location to cooperate on evacuation plans. “In our experience, company lines disappear in crises and fierce corporate rivals come together,” he remarked, adding that rival security consultants don’t let competition get in the way of pragmatic mutual assistance in times of real need.

However, Air Partner’s view is that its clients should have a dedicated aircraft for their particular evacuation, rather than count on an allocation of seats on a shared aircraft. “We don’t want our customers to be hostages to what happens to other people,” Saxton concluded.

Air Partner also prefers to put together an integrated evacuation plan for its clients. This will start with research of the companies’ circumstances in the country concerned and will include ground reconnaissance of the location. Using this information, the emergency planning division draws up proposed exit routes and safe havens, on which the client will sign off. Key decisions include whether the evacuation will take staff to a safe neighboring country or repatriate them directly to their own country.

If a customer is using a security firm in the location concerned (which more firms are doing these days), Air Partner wants to integrate its proposed evacuation plan with this company’s standard operating procedures. “The greatest potential for a plan to go wrong is at the ‘baton changes,’” said Saxton, alluding to the points at which one part of an evacuation process segues into another (such as when the security guards deliver different groups of employees to a safe location before transportation to the airport of departure). The Air Partner plan delineates who is responsible for specific tasks, such as getting exit clearances or visas.

Saxton told AIN that he sees a case for taking a more modular and holistic approach to the emergency planning process, and he intends to expand Air Partner’s service portfolio in this direction. In the future, this might extend to arrangements such as putting special insurance coverage in place and selecting security providers. Under this type of service, air transportation arrangements would be just one element in a plan that would address broader business and risk issues. Air Partner is now working on a new emergency planning template that would use an escalation ladder to provide a framework for analyzing each crisis and managing the risk.

But for the time being, most of its clients simply want to be assured that stand-alone plans have been laid for an effective evacuation from a given location. “We prefer to keep plans simple because overly detailed plans are inherently less flexible,” Saxton stated. In his view, simplicity is also important to allow for last-minute changes that might be required if, for example, a main contact person were incapacitated or a safe house became unavailable.

“We focus on a short list of arrangements that we can control and know about,” explained Saxton. “We don’t favor detailed scenario planning. A sound plan is a realistic plan that doesn’t pretend that we can foresee and control everything.”
The Air Partner teams will review their plans with clients periodically, and when the potential for trouble begins to gather momentum in the locations concerned. For example, a company that usually has 50 employees at a site might temporarily find itself with 100 staff there during a particular project. The plans consider factors such as medical provision to help employees who may have been injured in the course of an evacuation.

“An integrated emergency plan is all about buying time and maintaining choice,” said Saxton. “Our philosophy is that no matter who else is involved in the evacuation, we ultimately own all the potential problems and we take a zero-error approach and over-deliver on our customer’s hopes where necessary.”

Often western governments will implement some sort of rescue plan to protect their nationals from emergencies. But generally the advice of the security consultants is not to count on this alone. Quite apart from any other considerations, a firm may very well have expatriate employees from several different countries, which could result in a fragmented approach to saving its staff.

LeBlanc said that as far as governmental evacuations are concerned, “We generally want to stay ahead of the curve.” Still haunted by TV pictures of helicopters ferrying the last few desperate staff members from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, LeBlanc takes the view that waiting for the government will generally mean being among the last ones to get out of a crisis. “We work with the embassies and we make sure that our efforts don’t hamper theirs,” he concluded.

More than Just Peace of Mind
Quite apart from a heartfelt desire to protect company employees, there can be compelling legal and financial reasons for putting sound evacuation plans in place. For instance, life and health insurance coverage can be invalidated for people working in locations designated as war zones. In theory, this could leave companies facing liability lawsuits from bereaved families who find themselves lacking crucial insurance coverage after the death of the breadwinner.

In countries that have corporate manslaughter laws, senior executives face large personal fines or jail sentences if courts decide that they failed to put in place adequate measures to protect staff from a disaster. According to MedAire’s Autera, attorneys seeking to establish legal responsibility for a negative crisis outcome will be looking to establish that a company “should have known or have had reason to know” the scope and consequences of a particular emergency.

Supplemental insurance can be arranged to extend coverage through emergency situations. According to Air Partner’s Saxton, this may well depend on an employer having made adequate provision to evacuate or protect staff. Autera added that insurance premiums may in fact be somewhat reduced if the policyholder can establish that it has done as much as possible to mitigate the risk.

In the post-9/11 world, working people from all walks of life are increasingly aware of the dangers of terrorism. Saxton, who was formerly head of operations control with British Airways, said that expatriate staff now have high expectations about the level of care and support they will receive from their companies in the event of a situation turning ugly.

“People from different companies naturally talk to each other a lot in these foreign postings and they compare notes on what measures companies have taken,” he told AIN. In his opinion, firms that get a reputation for not making adequate security provisions will find it hard to recruit and retain suitably skilled staff to work in the increasingly long list of potential trouble spots around the world.

Representatives of a major civil engineering enterprise speaking to AIN on condition of anonymity recounted how the company had recently missed out on lucrative reconstruction work in Iraq by not having considered the security consequences of having its people working there. At the bidding stage, it and its rivals had been required to sign a legally binding document committing all necessary staff to work in Iraq for the duration of the project. Failure to provide the required staff would result in a major breach of contract, with the company owing swingeing financial penalties to the customer.

Just as company directors were about to sign the paperwork–after apparently perfunctory consideration–one middle manager casually asked what provision the firm had for evacuating staff from Iraq. He also inquired whether having employees work in a war zone could invalidate existing life and health insurance policies and whether company employment contracts could actually oblige individual staff members to make the trip.

The questions were met with a stony silence and ashen faces. Evidently these issues hadn’t even crossed the minds of the people about to commit their staff to a protracted tour of duty in a country where expatriates were then being abducted weekly. The company lawyers were instructed to resolve these issues, resulting in valuable time being lost in the bidding process and a significant advantage being handed to more farsighted competitors. At the same time, it slowly dawned on the firm’s directors that they had made no effective provision for the potential evacuation of their staff already working on a long-established project in Saudi Arabia.

“The threat (of violence and political unrest) has become more widespread and multidimensional, whereas it used to be more specific,” concluded Autera. “Companies have begun to recognize this shift.”

Sound Intelligence Is the Key to Emergency Planning

The best laid evacuation plan will be worthless without sound and current intelligence about actual and potential threats.

The intelligence foundation for Air Security International’s operation has its own 24/7 mission control operation in Houston, which draws on public sources of information (such as government and media channels), as well as on ASI’s own network of agents around the globe.

The added value it provides comes from its seasoned security analysts who filter and test the information before evaluating its worth and the conclusions that can be drawn from it. The ASI teams keenly debate the intelligence at hand, challenging each other to be as sure as they can that they end up advocating the most appropriate response for clients.

ASI produces daily digests of security situations around the globe through its World Watch service for subscribers. The service tracks unfolding problems and grades countries according to their current level of risk, with a “5” denoting “a very high threat of physical harm due to violent acts associated with crime, terrorism, demonstrations or war” and a “1” amounting to no more than “a minimum level of physical harm, petty crime being the most common threat.” The company can also provide clients with customized briefings, focusing on their particular areas of operation.

Another well respected source of security intelligence and analysis is iJet Travel Intelligence, headquartered in Annapolis, Md. The company also has an operations center in London and expects to open another somewhere in Asia this year.

In addition to offering a subscription service for intelligence reports, iJet provides its WorldCue global risk management system, which interfaces directly with client databases to assess the precise security ramifications of any given activity anywhere in the world. For example, by tapping into a company’s travel management database, iJet will know that a manager in Singapore had decided to fly to the Indonesian capital Jakarta at short notice, in the process exposing himself to the potential risk of a planned political demonstration there, which the general media has yet to report.

The iJet system is founded on a sophisticated assessment of each client’s circumstances and tolerance for risk. The company’s analysts constantly assess security threats and decide whether or not they encroach on a client’s operations or its risk threshold to a degree that requires mitigation. “Our technology integrates with the core sources of business information for our clients,” explained iJet chief executive Bruce McIndoe. The company also works with Air Partner on incident management.

Experienced intelligence analysts drawn from the security services of leading world powers and fluent in 21 languages filter and assess information from multiple sources, including government warnings, press reports and alerts from independent contacts on the ground in particular locations. The main task is to grade this information according to accuracy, relevance and time-sensitivity. McIndoe said that his team has come to treat state advisories as little better than “children’s fiction” because of the tendency of governments to rely on inaccurate information or to impose political spin to suit their agendas.

MedAire also has its own security intelligence and operations center in Metuchen, N.J., that supports the firm’s Global Response Center in Tempe, Ariz.