- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

A few years ago the U.S. State Department recommended that U.S. nationals leave Indonesia because political

unrest and accompanying violence was escalating. Sixty expatriates from a large Fortune 1000 company needed to evacuate and assumed their security and emergency assistance provider would help them. But the provider refused to fly in to Jakarta and extract them because it deemed the operation too dangerous.

The “expats” were eventually rescued by another organization, but the situation was unnerving. A local agent in Jakarta paid bribes to soldiers and police at roadblocks to get the convoy of 18 vehicles to a military base. At the base, a charter airline was flown in to evacuate the families to Singapore. The local agent also took care of homes and pets until the employees were able to return to Indonesia a few months later.

While this situation doesn’t occur that often, it illustrates the importance of having a contingency plan. In fact, the State Department issued a warning in early February asking American companies to consider removing their employees from Indonesia. There are more “hot spots” around the globe today and American companies that have operations abroad must have in place a well-thought-out plan to ensure the safety of their employees.

Employees are very vulnerable overseas. In many countries, Americans are easily recognized so it’s important to not draw unnecessary attention to yourself. Common sense will help you avoid many potential problems.

In non-democratic countries, for example, don’t engage in political discussions in public places as you may be overheard and that could land you in trouble. If you drive a car, don’t put any bumper stickers on it. Don’t set patterns that are easily followed — alter your daily transportation routes and periodically leave and arrive at your residence at different times.

In recent months, the State Department has issued more frequent “Worldwide Cautions.” One from last November stated: “Terrorist groups do not distinguish between official and civilian targets. Attacks on places of worship and schools, and the murders of private American citizens and other Westerners, demonstrate that as security is increased at official U.S. facilities, terrorists and their sympathizers will seek softer targets where Americans congregate or visit, such as residential areas, clubs, restaurants, schools, hotels, resorts and beaches.”

So what should be done? Obviously, developing a plan during an emergency is poor planning. There are no cost-containment measures or safety measures put in place for people or resources overseas if preplanning has not been done. And in many instances, there are two sets of employees that may require assistance — the American assignees and local nationals who are working for the company and may be at risk too.

While many Fortune 1000 companies rely upon their corporate security department to formulate a contingency plan, there are a number of companies that can help clients develop these plans to aid their international assignees. Most of these companies also have partners, usually assistance or security partners to help make arrangements for an evacuation and consult where necessary on potential risks.

Here are a few basic guidelines that will help American companies keep their employees safe while on assignment abroad:

Activities between the evacuating organization, safe haven country, the family and the company’s head office must be meticulously coordinated. Coordination should be determined in advance to allow for the likelihood of poor communication during a crisis.

On the ground, one person should be in charge so there is a clear chain of command to minimize confusion.

Everyone needs to know the plan — and that includes your children. In the event of an emergency, establish a safe meeting point. Don’t frighten your children but calmly walk them through step-by-step on what the family needs to do.

Determine who will be evacuated in a crisis situation, what constitutes a crisis situation and in what order the evacuation must take place.

Take into account what resources your company and employees have in the area and the region — this includes travel, medical and governmental. It’s also important to be able to periodically track where all employees are situated.

Review your contingency plan at least every six months. Situations overseas can change quickly; your plan needs to be fluid and adaptable to new events.

In the event that you and your family are placed in a situation where you are temporarily unable to leave your residence, make sure you have a basic survival kit in your home.

The State Department also encourages all American citizens residing abroad to register their presence and obtain up-to-date information on security conditions at the nearest American Embassy or Consulate. The State Department routinely provides advice on prudent steps to take in the event of an evacuation. This and other advice on crisis preparedness is available on the Department’s Web site at https://travel.state.gov.

And the proverbial “bottom line”? Working and living abroad can be a culturally enriching experience for you and your family. Effective internal corporate communication and cooperation is vital during an emergency so make sure your company has a detailed contingency plan in place — it will save lives.

Noel J. Shumsky, SCRP (senior certified relocation professional, is senior vice president, Global Business Development, Paragon Decision Resources Inc.

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