Statistically Speaking

By Ann Pomeroy Jun 1, 2007

HR Magazine, June 2007 Employee tracking, risk assessment and evacuation services help protect workers in hot spots around the world.

As more U.S. corporations enter the global business arena and face increasing security threats as a result of terrorist activities, political instability and natural disasters, many are taking a closer look at their responsibilities to employees who work or travel in hot spots around the world.

In addition to the legal responsibility to keep employees safe, there is a moral component as well, says Richard Culver, senior director of security services for International SOS, a security services firm. “Employees expect that their company will do the right thing.” And their families expect it as well.

According to Bill Connors, executive director and COO of the nonprofit National Business Travel Association, “Even small companies are more worried about their liability today.”

Some companies depend on their travel management partners, along with alerts issued by the U.S. State Department, to keep them informed about potential problems in their foreign locations. However, the general security alerts issued by the State Department or by travel management firms are typically less timely, detailed and specific than those provided by companies that specialize in employee monitoring, risk assessment and medical evacuation services.

Choosing A Security Provider

Oil and gas companies and other firms that routinely work in volatile areas of the world have used the services of companies like International SOS for many years. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an increasing number of employers in other industries are discovering the value of such services as well.

How does a company decide whether it needs such coverage—and whether it can afford the expense, which can be considerable? Depending on the level of services selected, the number of employees covered and the frequency of travel, fees can range from a few thousand dollars to many thousands of dollars annually.

Larger companies with a significant overseas presence are the primary clients for most of these security providers. But while the cost may be less of an issue for Fortune 1,000 corporations than for smaller organizations, Connors advises all companies—even small ones—with operations in dangerous areas of the world to consider investing in the services of such providers. In today’s increasingly turbulent global economic climate, they can’t afford not to have this kind of protection for employees in harm’s way, he says.

Chief security officers, heads of HR and others involved in choosing such services for their companies say that word-of-mouth from colleagues played a large role in helping them find the right firm. They consistently advise those in the market for a security monitoring service to talk to others in their field and ask them who they use and why.

As one security advisor puts it, he investigated various companies, including one recommended to him by a colleague, and then “I went out and kicked the tires.” Ultimately, he chose the service his colleague had recommended after he determined that it “had what I wanted and the price was right.”

The ‘Cadillac’ Service

Every company will have specific security needs. Cy Sharp, director of global health, safety and environmental affairs for MODEC International, chose what International SOS refers to as its “Cadillac” policy. “I wanted the most complete coverage possible,” he says. “I think we have just about everything.” Help is available around the clock for MODEC’s employees, and “SOS has permission to react” as necessary, including spending money, without waiting to reach Sharp.

MODEC builds storage and offloading vessels for the offshore oil and gas industry and also operates sites in volatile areas such as Nigeria and Angola, where Sharp says security issues can keep him awake at night. He wanted regular risk assessments for the company’s offshore sites as well as for those onshore. He also wanted emergency response and evacuation services and access to SOS’s medical clinics providing a Western standard of care in areas that lack local facilities.

Having this protection gives Sharp peace of mind, because it enables him to keep his finger on “the pulse of the world” around the clock. Because he trusts SOS’s reliability, “I’ve stopped checking my BlackBerry in the middle of the night. They’ve always come through.”

Medical Evacuations

Dr. Miles Druckman, a physician who has worked for International SOS for the past 10 years, is one of 1,351 medical professionals who staff its regional centers and clinics. “Our core service is medical assistance,” he says. “In countries like Indonesia, for example, where foreign doctors are not allowed to practice, we provide consultations with American physicians for U.S. employees who request them.” Druckman says they keep abreast of licensing issues in other countries and work closely with foreign doctors. In areas where the local standard of care does not meet U.S. requirements, patients are transported to the nearest acceptable location for treatment.

Medical assistance can be required for a wide variety of health problems. “Crack a tooth in Zimbabwe and that could be an emergency,” because there may not be a qualified local dentist available, says Druckman. At the other extreme are large-scale events that require medical evacuation services.

For example, on July 13, 2006, Israeli warplanes bombed all three runways at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, shutting down the airport and trapping travelers, students and employees in Lebanon.

After posting a security warning on its web site, SOS e-mailed a full analysis of the situation to all subscribers and included specific advice for its members in Lebanon.

Crisis teams in London, Paris, Frankfurt and Dubai, along with one at the company’s headquarters in Philadelphia, began to assess the impact of the bombing on clients that had employees working in Lebanon, and then helped these employers locate their personnel in the affected area. Traveler locator software that can interface with a company’s global positioning system allowed some stranded travelers to call in to report their location.

As the air and sea blockade imposed by Israel prevented many travelers from leaving, SOS advised its clients to prepare for an evacuation by collecting passports and valuables and stockpiling water, food and medication in case they were unable to leave quickly.

By July 15, it began evacuating passengers, first by road convoy and then by air the following day. Medical escort teams of doctors and nurses accompanied a group of Australian nationals who needed medical assistance during the flight home. One critically injured client was evacuated by air ambulance to a temporary alarm center in Cyprus, then to Frankfurt and finally home to Sydney. During a two-week period, SOS moved 345 clients out of Lebanon. All told, the staff provided medical escort services for about 2,000 people.

“As the threat level in Lebanon went from moderate to high, we were calling clients to help them assess their own level of exposure. And at one point, we were taking client calls every seven seconds,” says Culver, who headed SOS’s London component during the crisis.

Crisis Management

iJET Intelligent Risk Systems also focuses on risk assessment and crisis management. Andrew Chester, vice president for global information services for the Annapolis, Md.-based company, says it provides around-the-clock intelligence monitoring and tracking of foreign employees, issuing e-mail alerts to its clients as necessary.

One of the firm’s strengths, says Chester, is its ability to hire local experts across the globe who can provide in-depth analyses of their own areas. “We can hire people that the State Department can’t,” he says, either because they are not U.S. citizens or they fail to meet other federal requirements.

Employers with a sizable number of foreign-based employees need a complement of services, says Chester. iJET personnel track and monitor employees and their families, and they also coordinate other necessary services including medical insurance, medical evacuation, site security, and kidnap and ransom insurance.

iJET client Creative Associates International is a government contractor that works primarily for the U.S. State Department and the Agency for International Development in countries that receive U.S foreign assistance. Jerry Rubino, senior advisor for security for the office of the president, says the firm specializes in change management for countries in “conflict situations”—specifically the Sudan, Haiti, Colombia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rubino and his colleague Charlie Alliman, director of security and emergency preparedness, came to Creative in 2003 from the U.S. Justice Department, where Rubino was director of security for many years. The two security experts set up an infrastructure for the firm similar to the one they ran at the Justice Department.

However, the federal government has resources that are not available to private firms like Creative, so they chose iJET to provide risk assessment and 24/7 crisis support for the company. Since security is a major concern in the areas where they work, employees are briefed on the current risk level before going to a site. Once there, they carry the iJET “get out of jail card.” Similar to a credit card, it gives them one number they can call when they run into trouble. “iJET doesn’t have to wait to contact me before spending money when needed, since they are pre-authorized to spend up to a specific amount,” says Rubino.

Security managers at each job site have emergency response plans ready, as well as plans for moving employees to other locations when necessary. Creative has a separate security provider when “guards, gates and guns” are needed to protect a job site, as well as a medical insurance policy. iJET is familiar with local hospitals and has doctors on-call if a medical evacuation is necessary.

Rubino says they follow a three-pronged security plan that includes risk assessment, risk mitigation and a crisis plan. “We pay iJET to do triage,” says Alliman. Rubino agrees, adding, “It is widely recognized that more security is part of the responsibility of a serious company in today’s environment.”

Local Knowledge Is Essential

Kirk Voisin, vice president of business development and client services for Washington, D.C.-based Worldwide Assistance Services, says it’s critical for employers to be aware of local customs and requirements in foreign countries. In one country, for example, patients are expected to bring their own sheets when they enter the hospital. Those who are unaware of this custom could wind up sleeping on a bare mattress.

In one area of China, cash is required—no insurance cards, checks or credit cards accepted—before doctors at the local hospital will perform surgery. Voisin reports a case in which a man was forced to go back to the States for cash, then hand-carry more than $40,000 to the Chinese hospital before doctors would perform needed heart surgery for his father-in-law. If the man had been a Worldwide client, says Voisin, the company would have paid the hospital immediately.

One of World- wide’s newest services is identity theft assistance, added three years ago because of the increasing number of such crimes. That’s something Voisin knows about from personal experience. After a trip to the Caribbean in June 2006, he discovered an erroneous charge on his credit card bill. More unrecognized charges appeared the following month, and he decided to try to resolve the issue himself rather than asking the company to do the job. “It took me from July until Sept. 15 to [get things straightened out.]”

That’s a typical time frame, accord-ing to the Federal Communications Commission, which estimates that it takes individuals 300 hours to recover their identity. According to Voisin, “A client can call our 800 number, and we are now able to resolve the problem in about one hour of ‘talk time.’ ”

Better Care, Increasing Threats

Tim Daniel, COO of International SOS, says he has seen many changes in the global travel and security industry over the past 20 years. “Medical care in emerging economies overseas is much better,” he says. In addition, companies are going into areas where they didn’t venture until recently.

“People are going to [new] places now,” agrees Druckman, and they face an increasing number of threats, including health threats. An expert on avian flu who has lived and worked in a number of locations around the world, Druckman has helped SOS develop a global health strategy.

SOS is working with 40 or 50 companies to build avian flu pandemic plans, says Druckman. It’s a good idea, he notes, because “We have a pandemic every 30 to 50 years, and we haven’t had one since the 1960s. The last really big one was in 1918.”

Fortunately, every day doesn’t bring crises of the magnitude of the Lebanese bombings, the Indonesian tsunami or a major pandemic. “Some days people just have heart attacks and car crashes,” says Daniel ruefully. In response to increasing security concerns, service providers like SOS, iJET and Worldwide Assistance are seeing their customer numbers rise—and the number of competitors as well.

The services they provide help many employers sleep better at night.

Ann Pomeroy is senior writer for HR Magazine.

Web Extras

SHRM article:
Making the Decision to Evacuate Expatriate Employees 
(SHRM Online Global HR Focus Area)

SHRM report:
Crisis Management in Today's Business Environment: HR's Strategic Role

Web site:
ASIS International


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