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What happens when staff are caught in a crisis evacuation situation?

Following recent events in numerous theatres of conflict, to help employers across all sectors understand predominant and reoccurring evacuation scenarios, the global risk management solutions provider, has compiled the top five most difficult evacuation scenarios, using real-life examples to illustrate the steps taken by risk management companies to protect personnel in each case.

Following recent events in numerous theatres of conflict, to help employers across all sectors understand predominant and reoccurring evacuation scenarios, Andrew Devereux, Risk Intelligence Manager at Healix, the global risk management solutions provider, has compiled the top five most difficult evacuation scenarios, using real-life examples to illustrate the steps taken by risk management companies to protect personnel in each case.

In a world increasingly inflicted by crisis, driven by everything from the escalating conflict in the Middle East to unprecedented wildfires sweeping Europe, businesses have an increasing responsibility to protect their staff.

Alongside the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, this year has seen rapidly escalating instability in West Africa, along with the ongoing conflict on European soil in Ukraine. Crises driven by the changing climate are no less pressing or frequent, with the US experiencing 23 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in the first eight months of 2023 – the largest number since records began (Axios, Sept 2023) and unprecedented wildfires causing devastation across the Mediterranean during the summer.

Navigating an emergency evacuation used to be the concern of businesses operating regularly in high-risk areas, such as mining operators in unstable remote areas and media organisations in conflict zones. However, unpredictable political crises and extreme weather events have the potential to catch travellers and organisations unaware, even in historically safer destinations.

Every crisis presents unique challenges when it comes to mass evacuation scenarios. It is therefore prudent that all businesses incorporate comprehensive crisis response planning within risk management policies and procedures.
But which crises are the most challenging to evacuate assets from?  Whether dealing with conflict, or navigating natural disasters, here’s our run down of the most challenging crisis evacuation scenarios.

1. Conflict
The most complex security evacuations come from conflict situations. Risk management companies regularly face extremely complex mass evacuations from rapidly escalating conflict situations, which have pushed the capability to safely extract personnel. Such scenarios have increased in recent years, with the sudden fall of Kabul and outbreaks of conflict in Ukraine and Sudan pushing the capability of companies to effectively respond.

The disorganised exodus via Kabul’s only functioning airport brought major challenges for risk management organisations as Western militaries took control of evacuation flights and tens of thousands of civilians fled to the airport. The situation was exacerbated by the Islamic State bombing, which targeted a crowd of thousands attempting to enter the airport on 26th August. Healix was able to work with airport contacts to organise evacuation for those most vulnerable foreign nationals. All other evacuees were able to stand fast in a secure location, while different viable routes were identified, and the safest option determined – ground extraction into Pakistan where Healix worked with its trusted providers to move people to Islamabad for onward repatriation.

2. Political Crisis/Coup
Increased political instability around the world, such as a significant rise in coups and political crises, has driven the requirement for international evacuation. Historically, coups have often seen airspace and borders closed as rebel military leaders seek to head off any potential countercoup by government supporters and international actors.

While the immediate security risk to international travellers is often relatively limited where the crisis does not immediately trigger armed confrontations, political uncertainty and restrictive measures imposed in the immediate aftermath often present severe security and operational constraints for evacuations.

Managing evacuee expectations while navigating a complex and rapidly evolving political and operational risk environment requires an adaptable and diplomatic methodology. Establishing robust evacuation plans and setting triggers tied to proactive monitoring and forecasting allows organisations to rapidly implement evacuations, minimising delays in mobilising security support and coordinating plans with evacuees. This approach is often dependent on local security partners with the knowledge and connections required to continue operating and safely support evacuees.

3. Terrorist Attacks
Terrorist attacks frequently catch travellers off guard in a location they had previously considered relatively safe. In extreme cases, the risk of further attacks and security crackdowns by local authorities often necessitate managed security evacuations, which can become far more complex than anticipated.
In the event of lockdowns and airspace closures, cross-border relocation requiring professional security support might be the only way for travellers to immediately depart.

In other cases, security assets might need to be mobilised within hours to evacuate business travellers from an unstable risk environment. This was the case in Bamako and Grand-Bassam following major hotel attacks in 2015 and 2016 respectively.

In almost all cases, the difficulty in managing evacuations following a terrorist attack is defined by the sudden surge in demand for limited security resources on the ground and navigating unclear and inconsistently applied security measures, rapidly implemented in the wake of the attacks. This is particularly the case in previously lower risk environments, where the requirement for routine security support is low and limited security resources are available.

4. Natural Disasters
Disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, flooding and rapidly intensifying storms frequently catch both authorities and travellers off guard, overwhelming local emergency response capabilities and infrastructure.

The scale of evacuations following such events can be huge, with thousands requiring immediate support, seeking to urgently depart with extremely limited assistance from local authorities. Widespread damage to transport infrastructure, including blocked roads, damaged bridges and closed airports, significantly contributes to operational challenges for evacuations in these cases.

The presence of vulnerable personnel and/or injured and traumatised parties may require an expedited response and exploration of unconventional evacuation options. This is particularly true of travellers in remote areas who can be cut off from assistance, support and resupply for an extended period, as was the case in Nepal following the 2015 earthquake and Fiji in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston in 2016.

The complexity of natural disaster evacuations can vary greatly depending on the circumstances of the personnel requiring support, even within the same disaster zone. While groups in major urban centres can generally find support with supplies, accommodation and communications until mass evacuations become viable, those in remote or severely affected areas often require more immediate evacuation to an assembly area or point of departure.

Operations constrained by severe operational challenges require unconventional solutions including the use of helicopter extraction, off-road vehicular access and route obstruction clearance. As in any mass evacuations, unprecedented demand for limited local security resources can severely complicate natural disaster evacuations, with communications difficulties and limited ground-truth intelligence also hampering coordination and operational delivery.

5. Individual Threat/Targeting
While high-profile evacuations typically follow major crises, security threats facing individuals or specific operations and sites can also require crisis response and evacuation.

Individual threats often bring significant political, criminal or operational risks, which require additional security resources and planning – from complex multi-vehicle moves and site security to special risks consulting and kidnapping response.

The success of these operations is dependent on careful planning, comprehensive assessment, understanding of the specific threat and the ability to adapt quickly to rapidly evolving challenges.

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