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Extreme crisis planning: Hostile and high-risk environments

Extreme crisis planning: Hostile and high-risk environments


Events involving mass evacuations of foreign nationals escaping outbreaks of violence and conflict always remind me of my time living in high-risk countries overseas, and my own experience and personal responsibilities to execute a sudden ‘bailout’ plan. I have also recently spoken with specialists involved in evacuating people in these situations, as well as a former military personnel and specialist, high-risk security consultant. Here is our collective advice:

On a personal level:

1. Research the situation on the ground: Ahead of travelling or moving to a country, read all the in-country political assessments and travel advice. This applies to any nationality.  I used to check these from the UK Government, the CIA country profile and the BBC country profile, as well as NGOs and international organisations. This information will help you make your own risk assessment. Cultural and situational awareness, as well as resources and capabilities in the country that can assist and be part of your contingency planning, is essential.  All of this can be researched through open-source channels. Other areas of research to cover include:

    • Crime & laws
    • Corruption and attitudes towards this locally
    • Culture & customs
    • Driving & transport conditions
    • Lone female / LGBT prevailing attitudes

2. Take specialist insurance cover: We all need travel insurance, but most policies will not cover high-risk counties. There are specialist providers in the Lloyd’s of London market, mainly for multi-nationals with interests in-country, NGOs, and aid workers. I purchased my insurance from a Lloyd’s of London specialist provider when I worked for the UN as a contractor in Afghanistan. Yes, these policies are very expensive, but they give peace of mind.  Whilst the government issuing your passport is the ultimate insurer and will help, as we have seen this week, you will join the others relying on your government to get you out.

3. Medical planning: Medical insurance should also be the prime consideration when taking out specialist insurance coverage. Cover all aspects of your time in country and consider every eventuality. What would you need to treat all types of injuries and illnesses? How would you consider medical evacuation?  What are the practicalities of medical evacuation based on the time and distance over remote terrain you are operating in. Other medical considerations include:

  • Health threats & endemic diseases
  • In-country medical care
  • Vaccinations
  • Current medical treatments
  • Police / paramedic emergency numbers

4. Register your details on arrival in country: Most governments have a system that allows individuals to register their details online (address, What3Words location for home, school and workplace, local phone number, number in family, next of kin at home, etc). This enables governments to have contingency plans in place to deal with those whom they may need to extract. It also offers traceability if a loved one at home is worried about lack of communication/missing persons reports, and so on. Check online or with your embassy on arrival how to do this.

5. Grab bag for each household member: A grab bag is a small rucksack with absolute travel essentials. 9% of the time (if not 100%) this will not be used, but to have it permanently in place will significantly help at a time of intense anxiety and stress.  Store it in a cupboard, preferably in a hallway/handy area that should also contain emergency supplies. A grab bag should include:

  • Passport and passport copies with the current in-country visa. Also include any second country passports in your possession.  The head of household should hold children’s passports.  Copies of their passports should be in their grab bags.
  • Employer ID and any access badges.
  • Communications:
  • Smartphone,back-up ‘burner’ phone, spare battery packs, Garmin inReach satellite phone (ensure this is fully charged)
  • Wind-up or solar phone charger. Also include a wind-up radio IF SPACE ALLOWS
  • Whistle, mirror, torch
  • Cash in at least local and international currency ($USD, £GBP, Euros, etc.)
  • Credit card and prepaid debit card. Access to cryptocurrency, if widely used in country.
  • Bottled water: enough for your travel party. Without food, humans can last weeks. Without water, we only last days.  Two litres per person per day is the rule of thumb, contingent on country temperatures. Boiled sweets.
  • First aid kit and medication, both prescribed and over the counter.
  • Tissues, notebook, several pens
  • Eyeshades, ear plugs and disposable toiletries IF SPACE ALLOWS. Keep these for your overnight flights and hotel stays. This will provide a bit of human comfort once you are on the evacuation journey.

6. Emergency bottled water: Hold enough stocks for at least a fortnight.  This should be part of regular household consumption stocks, so it is rotated and does not go out of date.

On an organisational level:

Policies and guidance to employees

Adopt points numbers 1 to 5 above as policy and provide specialist insurance and recommended communication devices.  Recommend number 6 in the general in-country onboarding pack.

Communication is invariably the biggest challenge when faced with an emergency. Consider the PACE communications methodology in your crisis communication plans and processes.  Invest in the right equipment for your employees – even for those residing in urban environments. These are for emergency use and getting vital information in a timely and reliable manner can be life-saving.

PACE explained:

  • Primary           VHF/UHF Radio (Range/DLoS)
  • Alternative      Mobile (local network local sim/Landline)
  • Contingency    Sat-Com (Coverage/Cost) -BEGAN – KYMETA - STARLINK
  • Emergency      Beacon/ Garmin Inreach SOS

Planning and preparation

 Ensure travellers properly prepare before a trip.  It may seem obvious, but it can save valuable time and significant worry for all parties. Even for seasoned travellers, conducting threat assessments and maintain situational awareness is vital to a safe and secure business trip.

Ensure all parties have local cultural understanding and awareness.  No amount of experience can outperform local knowledge and contacts on the ground. Knowledge of the country and its people, provides those travelling and operating with an advantage in sensing when something is not right.  Moreover, it allows them to act fast. An example is to work with partners such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from a particular culture.  They can recognise the linguistic nuances while liaising with locals and strike the correct balance between verbal and non-verbal communication.

 Ensure all your crisis plans/playbooks are both up to date AND regularly exercised, particularly if the political risk increases and unsettling events in-country begin to occur. This should include a REGULAR phone check of everyone on the crisis plan. Do not wait to find out that a key person who left months before has not been replaced.  It sounds obvious, yet it does happen.

Whilst the globe is becoming more interconnected, we should remember that much of the world’s population can have very different attitudes to our own. Business travellers must be aware that they are potential targets of both criminals and political risks.

It is unwise to assume that access to the internet will be as simple as in your home country. Bring hard copies of all important documents and have a VPN installed on your tech.

 Escalate, activate and resource

The first decision any leader can make is to acknowledge and take action with an emerging crisis.  This is principally to ramp up resources.  This goes beyond activating a crisis management team/war room/situation centre. Any crisis plan relies on a lot of relevant information from multiple sources. This needs to be gathered and verified, with gaps addressed before any major decision. You will need resources for that.  Also ensure you break into a shift system early when it is a long-haul crisis – people will get tired quickly and that will potentially impede decision-making and concentration.

Communicate regularly and reassuringly

Once activated, any plan needs to be two-way.  A media spokesperson AND HR/internal communication points of contact on hand 24/7 to provide important updates are highly recommended, as this will provide reassurance, particularly where security is a major concern and evacuation instructions need to be communicated clearly and swiftly.  This will free up time for leaders to manage the crisis and deliver significant announcements.

Social media activity is critical to augment these efforts and can also support the gathering of human intelligence and feedback.  It is also important to listen to constant feedback to give that reassurance. People in need require information and assurances.  Led by HR, an army of trained individuals can provide that, either specially trained staff with an emergency role or specialist contractors.  It is a worthwhile investment.

Coordination and alternative plans

With personal safety, emotions are heightened and nothing else matters. Individuals can quickly lose confidence and make alternative plans at their own risk. Work closely with the relevant stakeholders pivotal to getting employees to a safe place: in-country authorities and ‘actors’, governments of your employee’s nationalities, insurance brokers and internal departments.

Communication can often be the most challenging part of crisis management where there are security and communication issues, but this should be factored into the crisis plan with alternatives in place where possible. Communicating the results of this – or that they are underway, along with clear and timely directions – will provide anxious people on the ground with an element of reassurance: they will know what to expect, will flag any difficulties they have, and they can take immediate action.

These are just the essentials. There is a lot more that can be done, e.g. HEAT training, online tutorials, and policy reviews. However, as the world is becoming more volatile as it faces increasing geopolitical and economic challenges, the situation in Sudan should be a prompt to review either personal or organisational plans to get out of a situation overseas that threatens you, your family or your company employees.

My thanks to Richard Pryor for his contribution and input into this blog.  His brief bio:

Richard is a response consultant in several key risk areas, in addition he provides bespoke advisory packages from Solo Traveller, High Net Worth (HNW) clients, Governments and Non-Government organisations (NGOs).

Learn more about Richard via his LinkedIn profile

Useful References

What Three Words

Garmin Inreach

PACE communications methodology

CIA World Fact Book

BBC News Country profiles

Reminder:  This blog content is copyright to Sheena Thomson Consulting. It can be copied and used with permission and credit from Sheena Thomson Consulting.

Useful References

What Three Words

Garmin Inreach

CIA World Fact Book

BBC News Country profiles

Photo Credit:  Twitter.