Sunday, May 28, 2006

GS(3) Thunderbolt: Travel Security Lessons from the Upheaval within the Ring of Fire

"Tens of thousands camped out for a second night Sunday in streets, cassava fields and the paths between rice paddies as the death toll from Indonesia's earthquake topped 4,300. Rattled by hundreds of aftershocks, exhausted and grieving survivors scavenged for food and clothes in the brick, wood and tile rubble of their flattened houses....Torrential rain late Sunday added to the misery of some 200,000 people left homeless by Saturday's 6.3-magnitude quake, most of them living in makeshift shelters of plastic, canvas or cardboard. Thousands of wounded awaited treatment in hospitals overflowing with bloodied patients". (Associated Press, 5-28-06)

Thousands have died, and thousands more have been injured, in the 6.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Yogyakarta, in central Indonesia, over the weekend. Inter Press Service (IPS), Associated Press, Jakarta Post and other news organizations report collapsed buildings, gridlocked traffic, panicked people, blackouts, fuel shortages, and overflowing hospitals in the ancient, "royal" city of one million people. It is the seventh major earthquake to hit Indonesia since 2000, and the fourth in the last 17 months, including the magnitude 9 off the coast of Sumatra, which caused an Indian Ocean tsunami and resulted in the death of over 130,000 people in 2004.

Meanwhile, fifty miles away, Mount Merapi, one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, has been spewing ash and gas in recent weeks, and remains at “Level 4,” i.e., the highest alert status.

Borobudur, the magnificent 7th-9th century Buddhist temple, twenty five miles northwest of Yogyakarta, has apparently escaped damage. (Buried under volcanic ash, and swallowed by the jungle, Borobudur was discovered in 1814. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.)

Challenged by deadly outbreaks of bird flu, Al Qaeda-style terrorist attacks, and deepening chaos in East Timor, this beautiful, but troubled archipelago may seem far away if you are based in Europe or North America. But there is a lot of global business travel to Indonesia, and a lot of global vacation travel, too.

Does your organization know where its people are traveling at any given moment? Do you know their itineraries? Do you have accurate and up-to-date contact information for family and friends? (Quite often, the emergency contact information is for a spouse or other family member traveling with the employee you are seeking to get in touch with.) Have your business travelers been given emergency contact instructions? Have they been briefed on what to do in the event of catastrophe? Does someone in your organization monitor the risks and threats of business travel? Does your organization even have a real travel security program? (Such programs can be economical and effective, if they are well-designed.) Is your workforce encouraged to take common-sense precautions when going on holiday, including leaving itineraries with a friend or appropriate manager at the office, so that you can confirm their status and provide emergency assistance if necessary?

Nor can the focus only be on business and holiday travel. If you have operations or interests in earthquake territory, e.g., in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Mexico City, or anywhere along or within the Ring of Fire, do the relevant business continuity and crisis management plans reflect an appropriate degree of detail? Do you test your readiness adequately and regularly? Does your awareness and education program provide practical advice to your workforce on how to prepare their homes and families for such eventualities?

I suggest the motto of your organization’s security program should be “Anywhere, anytime…” Of course, you might also add, “particularly in Indonesia.”