In the last four months, the landscape of travel has changed beyond recognition and many have been affected by the chaos caused by Covid-19. While the tourism sector may have stolen all the headlines on getting travel going again, NGOs have been quietly going about the process of getting their people deployed to the areas where they are needed.
A unique situation
The challenges faced by NGOs far outweigh those faced by tour operators and business travellers, as they not only have to cope with travel in the aftermath of a pandemic, they also have to mitigate the risks inherent in their theatre of operations, which could include anything from disease outbreaks, civil unrest, conflict, natural disaster and humanitarian crisis, to name a few. It’s imperative, then, that pre-travel health and security briefings are appropriate and robust in order to keep staff safe and to allow NGOs to continue their work.
The process can be broken down into five steps, each one forming part of the wider travel risk management strategy. No one step is more or less important than another, and it’s vital for staff to have a thorough understanding of why the process exists. Individual buy-in is a critical component to the efficacy of any such policy, and therefore, education of staff is essential. All travel briefings need to include details of the following:
What are the threats in the country or region that you have little or no control over? These could include things such as the political and security situation, health concerns (including disease prevalence), dangerous flora and fauna, and geohazards, as well as commercial and reputational threats. Each needs to be assessed and communicated to those travelling to the region involved. Medical assistance must be available in a variety of forms, including details of local medical facilities, as well as remote (often telemedical) assistance.
Transportation, accommodation, journey management and the monitoring of health and wellbeing of staff are all manageable risks, but they need to be ingrained in the culture of an organisation to be effective. Briefings need to detail every aspect of the risks likely to be encountered and mitigation measures provided. It is vital to recognise that not all risks can be accounted for, as there is always an element of the unknown. Therefore, the ability to dynamically risk assess needs to form part of the briefing process. Security assistance provision and intelligence distribution are key.
Testing and PPE
Pre-Covid, testing wasn’t something many considered, yet NGOs have been providing medical checks for their staff for many years. The difference now is that we should all be considering providing Covid-19 tests for travellers. Tests should be available pre-travel, whilst deployed, and upon return from travel. Tests are freely available and should form part of the overall travel risk management strategy. If personnel are operating in areas where there is a higher risk to health, PPE must also be supplied and a strict compliance procedure implemented.
Now, more than ever, travelling staff need to be aware of the emergency response plan, what it contains, and how to implement it should the need arise. Often in emergency situations, time is of the essence and it is therefore imperative that everyone is familiar with the procedure, as anybody may be responsible for implementing all or part of the plan. All those deployed overseas need to be able to engage an emergency mindset should the unexpected occur. Emergency response plans must contain details of local medical facilities, police, and embassies, as well as key locations such as airports and landing strips, and must provide a map of the area to include routes to local medical emergency facilities and evacuation locations. Any emergency response plans must include alternative options, should the primary one be compromised by weather, unrest, militia activity, or other potential hazards.
Operating in remote and sometimes hostile regions has allowed the NGO sector to fine tune their evacuation procedures. Things can go south very quickly and the ability to react effectively can make the difference between a positive outcome or the worsening of a situation. Evacuation planning has the clear objective of removing staff from a particular country or region and can involve complex logistics and potential hazards. Sometimes it is better (and safer) to keep staff in the country (invacuation) and ensure the plan contains the ability for them to be self-sufficient, possibly for an extended period of time. This will include essentials such as food, access to clean drinking water, communications and an adequate safe house. The half-way measure might include hibernation, where staff are kept in a safe location until an evacuation can be affected. Each plan needs to be documented and practised in order to give staff the best chance of surviving the environment in which they find themselves.
With all the above, location will have a massive impact on the level of briefing and the training required. Training must be appropriate to the hazards likely to be encountered in the region of deployment and whilst this can sometimes prove costly, it forms an essential part of keeping staff safe and engaged in the culture of safety. It is also important not to forget the next of kin of those deployed, and all plans must include details of how they will be informed of the wellbeing of their loved ones overseas. Therefore, contact details of next of kin need to be collected and accessible to the Incident Management Team.
Learn from the best
The business travel and the tourism sectors can learn a lot from how NGOs operate, particularly in keeping their staff safe in difficult times and in challenging locations. Keeping travellers aware of risks and how best to mitigate them is more important now than ever. Travel, whether for business or leisure, has never been under such scrutiny and neither, for that matter, have travel risk managers. Comprehensive briefings, appropriate training courses, as well as medical and security assistance provision, must all form part of travel management plans in order to sustain overseas travel as a viable option.