Disasters: The role of government


First published in ITIJ 84, January 2008


The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Consular Crisis Group assists British Nationals who have been directly affected by a disaster overseas (natural, man-made or terrorist related), as Harriet Lewis explains

The three core parts to the role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Consular Crisis Group are: crisis preparedness, handling crises, and working with partners. However, we should be the last resort when it comes to providing assistance. Travellers need to help themselves as much as possible in preparing for the worst, and travel operators should be the first port of call for travellers during a crisis. However, when a crisis hits, whether it be a hurricane, a tsunami or a bus crash, we are ready to step in and help where needed.

Our core team of 15 in London works closely with Foreign Office Posts around the world to plan for possible crises, exercising these plans so we are well practised for the real thing, and ensuring we provide the right equipment and training for our staff to be able to respond if necessary. We work closely with all our external partners and stakeholders to ensure that when a crisis happens, we have our contacts well established, and we know what their role is and vice versa. As head of the stakeholder management team within Consular Crisis Group, my area of expertise is in this last bit of our work.

The FCO works hard to encourage British nationals travelling overseas to always take out comprehensive travel insurance, as there is a limit to what help the FCO can and should provide for them. It is imperative that travellers understand that they need to plan for the worst, although the chance of that happening is small. We inform the travelling public of the issues to be aware of via our ‘Know Before You Go’ campaigns. We may on occasion make special arrangements for overseas nationals following acts of terrorism, civil disturbance or natural disasters, but this is only in exceptional circumstances.

"travel operators should be the first port of call for travellers during a crisis"

Insurers often rely on the FCO’s travel advice when making decisions about claims, and the UK Government has spent a great deal of time improving the way in which it produces and communicates this travel advice.

callcentreladyCore principles

There are three overall ways in which we seek to deliver an ‘effective’ response to disasters, summarised through the ‘three Ps’:

Preparation – having standardised civil contingency plans and emergency plans that are tested on a regular basis.

Profile – responding swiftly and practically to disasters, and being visible on the ground, for example through distinctive clothing. We have teams of FCO staff specially trained in crisis response on standby to deploy to help the embassy or high commission on the ground when a crisis has occurred that has affected British nationals.

Partnerships – the FCO has partnerships with medical assistance companies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to utilise their staff overseas and to provide aftercare, such as victim support, to British nationals involved in crises overseas.

These principles are tested each time there is a crisis overseas, and procedures are constantly being refined and built upon after every crisis. For example, we are about to launch an online database to enable British nationals overseas to register their travel/residence details online, and also to enable us to have a ‘single source of the truth’ location for missing persons during a crisis overseas. This should improve the information we have at our fingertips at any one time, in order to be able to confidently inform families and others closely involved, what the current situation might be. We have also recently expanded our call centre capacity, so are now in a position to take a vastly increased volume of calls from the public at any one time. Our work with Foreign Office Posts on working up their crisis response plans and exercising these plans is ongoing, and always being improved and updated.

However, although we do have formal procedures and mechanisms to help us respond to a crisis, to use a cliché, each crisis is different. Along with all our fellow crisis responders, we therefore need to be flexible in our preparation, and wide-ranging in the kind of partnerships we form.  We don’t know who will be affected next.

"when a crisis hits, we are ready to step in and help where needed"

As well as all the responders preparing for a possible crisis, we also need to make sure that the British public themselves are as ready and prepared as they can be. For example, travellers need to know that they are responsible for obtaining the right, comprehensive travel insurance that is fit for purpose and covers all the activities they are intending to undertake, as well as any particular risks for the part of the world to which they are travelling. With terrorism being an ever-increasing risk worldwide, we strongly encourage travellers to seek insurance cover which covers them for terrorist attacks, and urge travel insurance companies to clearly display what their policies cover in this area.

Travel organisations

We rely heavily on our already well-formed relationships with the Federation of Tour Operators (FTO), Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) and other travel organisations, and are keen to establish and nurture more of these relationships with others who may be required to help British nationals abroad during a crisis: those in the travel and leisure industry including airlines, hotel management, tour operators – the list is endless. We won’t be able to meet everyone face to face, but we do want to widen awareness of what we can offer and what our remit is through other forms of communication, such as this article.

"we strongly encourage travellers to seek insurance cover which covers them for terrorist attacks"

Assistance companies and travel Insurers are of course closely involved in the response to a crisis affecting British nationals overseas, and it is important that we are fully aware of your remit, and vice versa. We also rely on tour operators to help provide us with information on their clients, on numbers involved, and on contingency plans in place in case something goes wrong, as well as the ways in which these plans are being implemented when/if things go wrong. Tour operators all rely on our advice, in particular our travel advice, so it is extremely important that communication between our people and tour operator staff on the ground (and in the UK) is up and running early.