Travel isn't fun and games in a crisis situation

While a foreign posting can see you living the dream, some places can be a nightmare instead. It's all about risk management.

Geopolitics and social disorder can sometimes turn travel to a foreign post into a dangerous situation.

It was a Tuesday night in May 2003, in the Saudi capital Riyadh. David Spong FCPA and his wife were enjoying a quiet evening at home watching television, when a massive explosion blew off the front door and its frame.

Anti-Western terrorists had just detonated a 200kg bomb made of plastic explosives that reverberated throughout their neighbourhood.

“We were living in a compound for Westerners,” says Spong, then Ericsson Saudi Arabia’s CFO and finance director.

“It housed about 60 Ericsson employees and their families and, all of a sudden, I had them all on my doorstep asking me what to do next. My wife and I ran on adrenalin for the next six hours.”

Spong was the most senior member of the Ericsson executive team in the compound, so it was up to him to do an initial head count and show leadership during the crisis and in the months that followed. One family had disappeared, and there was a frantic search to determine if they had gone out for dinner, been injured in the blast or worse.

“We found out four hours later that they’d rushed to the airport and taken a plane to Lebanon without telling anyone,” Spong says.

“It’s interesting in a crisis situation. When people are under stress they react very differently. There’s either a fight or flight reaction and that family definitely flew.”

Over the next six months there was concerted counselling for Ericsson’s employees and their families in Riyadh.

"All of a sudden, I had them on my doorstep asking me what to do next. My wife and I ran on adrenalin for the next six hours." – David Spong FCPA

Spong ensured that security was significantly improved after the blast. About 10 families returned to their home country or relocated to another destination. The rest, including the Spongs, decided to remain.

These days, many firms have a more mobile workforce. Heightened terrorist alerts, and an increase in the number of natural disasters expected due to climate change, have made guaranteeing employees’ security – often in foreign locations – more challenging.

Many firms, including PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Deloitte, join with specialists such as the International SOS and Control Risks partnership. They are the largest corporate security and healthcare providers in the world, with links to a network of clinics, assistance centres and logistic providers across more than 70 countries.

The reach of these security experts is extensive. During the Arab Spring uprisings in early 2011, International SOS and Control Risks evacuated more than 1250 people out of Egypt as street protests, mass arrests and curfews put foreign nationals at serious risk.

Grant Strudwick, the company’s regional security director for the Asia-Pacific region, says that during Thailand’s military coup last year, the company was tracking 35,000 employees for its clients.

“We offer instant management communications via satellite,” he says.

“We were providing clients with up-to-the-minute intelligence.”

Strudwick says that the company can evacuate clients on a charter or a commercial flight, get them to an international safe haven, then organise onward travel.

In countries such as Papua New Guinea, Strudwick recommends a “meet-and-greet service” for day-to-day business. To avert risks from potential car-jackings and other crime, clients are given secure escorts to and from the airport, to hotels and meetings.

In countries such as Nigeria or Afghanistan, he says an armoured vehicle is an absolute necessity. Syria and southern Iraq are currently no-go zones. He also suggests avoiding religious holidays and elections in unstable countries.

Natural disasters pose a different type of threat. In 2011, Joe Sheeran, a partner at PwC, was on secondment to Tokyo with his family.

“Nothing could prepare us for the significance of the March 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami,” Sheeran says.

“At the time there was much confusion and conflicting information fuelled by the media coverage of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. The severity of the situation seemed to change hourly.”

Daily life became stressful as petrol stations rationed fuel and supermarkets quickly ran out of basic supplies such as milk and bread.

“From the time the earthquake hit, the firm was massively supportive,” Sheeran says. PwC’s CEO, his business unit leader and countless colleagues contacted Sheeran to see if he was OK and what help they could provide.

Soon afterwards, he evacuated his young family back to Sydney, packing a single suitcase and a pram. An Australian partner, who was leaving for the UK for a month, handed Sheeran the keys to his house, no questions asked.

“One thing I took away from the experience is that while a firm can have various policies to deal with these situations, what really makes the difference is the care shown by individuals, which I will forever be grateful for,” he says.

The 3 'R's of preparedness

Grant Strudwick from International SOS and Control Risks says clients should follow these steps in a high-security zone.

  • Be ready: Get information on the situation from reliable sources and from people on the ground. Have an action plan in case of a crisis.
  • Respond: Respond to the crisis in the most appropriate manner.
  • Recover: After the crisis, make use of counselling and debriefs so staff can recover from the event and the organisation can learn from it.

This article is from the February 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK.

February 2015
February 2015

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