Is It Safe To Travel?
Traveling as part of a higher educational or research opportunity can be one of the most rewarding experiences for students and faculty. With the current dangers of international terrorism each trip must be considered based on the advice of experts from the State Department and Department of Homeland Security. They are tracking threats constantly. Another source of information are the travel and residence warnings posted by the US Department of Defense for service members and family dependents. What has been a regular and safe destination may now be in the cross hairs of a terrorist group. Students and educators traveling internationally often turn to anecdotal evidence from friends and co-workers. These sources will have useful details about local conditions but may lack the bigger picture of safety and security.
How Much Oversight Should We Provide?
Higher education institutions should be tracking all students and faculty traveling for educational and research activities. Most colleges and universities have a study abroad office. This office should have an emergency plan and be prepared to conduct a crisis evacuation for medical emergencies, natural disasters and human made events. This office should be aware of travel plans
Does this Mean We Track Our Students and Faculty Every Minute?
No. This means we have some key locations and information about their travel. When should they arrive, where will they stay, how are they traveling? The oversight can be adjusted to conditions where the campus member is traveling. Any events such as a terrorist attack can suddenly cause the level of oversight to increase.
I Thought This Was Handled By the State Department?
The US Department of State has a travel program but it requires individual registration for persons for each trip. Travelers should enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). https://step.state.gov/step/ There are some services provided by the State Department but what the services are and their availability can vary by the incident. The state Department has a webpage with frequently asked questions. This page is called What the Department of State Can and Can’t Do in a Crisis. https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/emergencies/crisis-support.html
Higher education demands verifiable primary sources to support academic research but will accept anecdotal evidence when it comes to their travel safety. One of the most valuable descriptions of what an emergency overseas evacuation is like can be found in the 2007 Government Accounting Office report (GAO-07-893R) : July 2006 Evacuation of American Citizens from Lebanon. http://www.gao.gov/assets/100/94959.pdf This report provides a realistic assessment of the challenges and limitations of an internal evacuation of American citizens.
If There is a An Emergency We Already Have a Travel Company We Use.
The normal information and coordination systems employed by commercial travel agencies may be wiped out during a natural disaster or terrorist attack. Institutions should consider using firms that provide services such as emergency evacuations. Some of these firm provide services such as security personnel to accompany evacuees.
What About Insurance?
People often think about trip cancellation insurance for international travel. This is valuable. It is not the same as insurance which may be useful during the trip. The most important insurance is medical travel insurance. Insurance policies based in the United States may not cover the expenses of an accident or medical evacuation in a foreign country. Travelers often assume their HMO will operate the same when they are overseas.
There are insurance policies that cover contingency evacuations. These are useful when normal travel connections and systems are disrupted. The providers who specialize in this insurance can sometimes provide a variety of travel options to move travelers to a location where they can access regular transportation such as rail or air flights.
How Can We Prepare Our Travelers?
Travelers should be receive training on the various aspects of their travel. They should receive basic information about travel safety. A good start is the US State Department Traveler’s Checklist https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/go/checklist.html
Each traveler should be enrolled in the STEP program. They should be briefed about any government travel warnings. They should have information about how to contact the US embassy nearest to their destination. The State Department also provides a Student Abroad website with useful information for academic travelers. https://travel.state.gov/content/studentsabroad/en.html
During natural disasters or major terrorist incidents communications such as cell phones and email can be disrupted. Institutions should have recommended contingency locations where travelers can stay temporarily until safety improves. This could be hotels that have been preselected and vetted. The traveler should be trained to check into one of these hotels if they are unable to continue their trip. This gives the institution a short list of where to look if the traveler is in a location with a disaster or emergency.
What Areas Are Overlooked?
There are two areas that are sometimes overlooked: crime and kidnappings. Academic travelers can become victims of serious crimes. Every country has its own policies and laws regarding crimes. Travelers should be aware of how to report crimes in the country they are visiting. Terrorism experts are warning that international terrorist groups may target travelers for attack and kidnappings. Institutions should have a policy for dealing with kidnappings of academic travelers. The FBI maintains legal attaché offices in strategic embassies throughout the world. Travelers should be aware of how to contact the US Embassy in the country they are travelling in.
How Should We Manage an Emergency?
Institutions should have a crisis management team. If they become aware of a crisis where a member of their community is traveling the team should be activated. This team will be cooperating with a variety of campus and off campus departments and agencies. If a threatened traveler can contact the home campus, the team can provide advice and information. This may include helping the traveler escape a situation or help them to travel to a safe location.
Part of this effort should include information for the family of the traveler. They will look to the institution for information about their loved one. The campus must be prepared to keep these stakeholders informed. Contact is important because a traveler may call home before they contact the campus.
How Can We Prepare Our Institution?
You need a travel safety plan which includes dealing with contingencies. (Note: Some people will take another institution’s plan and put their logo on it. This is often referred to as “not reinventing the wheel.” It can be useful to get ideas from other peer organizations but institutions should use caution with this approach. It may miss important specifics unique to your campus.) Your institution should have a crisis management team that meets and trains on a regular basis. You should consider contracting with a private intelligence service that can provide information about international conditions. You may want to consider hiring an agency that can provided more detailed threat assessments to assist in travel planning.
Summary: Is This Really Necessary? We Have Never Had a Problem….
There are terrorist groups who are targeting international travel systems, cultural centers, and historic heritage sites. All of these are natural destinations of academic travelers. If you are relying on your past history as an indicator of future safety you should remember the Titanic had never sunk before it struck the iceberg. Higher education institutions that are concerned about the safety of their academic travelers need to develop a plan and prepare for travel related emergencies.
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© RMason 2016