When it was announced that the Arab League summit would take place in Baghdad, many leaders expressed concerns for the safety of the event. Now, several months later, the tables have turned in the Middle East, and some of those leaders are facing a much more hazardous situation at home.
It has been some time since so many crises affected the region. Many companies have been caught on the back foot. Those who were comfortable to work in relatively crime-free Libya found themselves in a war-zone overnight. Tourists in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain were presented with chaos at the airport and the risk of violence in the streets. Firms have abandoned properties and employees found themselves stranded in compounds, unable to organise a proper evacuation.
Protests have taken place in Iraq like elsewhere in the region, but they are not having the same impact on commerce. The underlying grievances such as unemployment, impoverishment and a lack of services are as much of a concern here as anywhere else, but private companies have not been significantly affected.
One of the reasons they will not be as badly affected as firms elsewhere in the region is readiness. Companies operating in Iraq (should) have a series of measures in place to mitigate risks. Crisis management is much more likely to be part of the everyday culture of a firm working in the country. The security environment has necessitated it.
Nonetheless, now may be an opportune moment for companies to re-assess their crisis management procedures.
Having contingency guidelines in the first place is a good step. However, it is no use to have them stored in a document, gathering dust on a shelf. They need to be in the minds of people on the ground and even support staff outside of the country. In the event of a crisis there will be little time to read a book. Actions will need to be swift and fluid, by both those initiating crisis response steps in the country, and those with the responsibility of assisting them from outside of the country - such as travel planners, health and safety officers and even those with the responsibility of liaising with employee families. The only way to ensure fluidity is to undertake training and to practise measures on a regular basis, amongst all of the members of staff who will be involved in a crisis when it takes place.
If you have to get out
Evacuation plans should also be reviewed. Many companies will already have evacuation cover in place, but contracts should be checked in light of recent events. Examine the small print of your cover document, because many providers will only guarantee evacuation from the nearest safe airport. In crises in Libya and Egypt these airports were often in another country, which proved little use for employees stuck in gridlock in Cairo or worse - left stranded in the Sahara desert. Measures need to be in place to organise an evacuation by other means, such as boat or car.
Contracting firms should also review how their contingency plans will fit in with those of their client. With more than one organisation operating on a rig it should not be assumed that security will be provided by the largest company. This is often not the case, and certainly should not be something given over to chance.
Evacuation procedures will also vary from company to company, depending on their personnel, activities, location and resources. Evacuation plans therefore need to be bespoke. There is no one-size-fits-all contract that companies can sign and hope for the best. An energy firm with staff in the desert will have completely different evacuation requirements from a hotel firm in a busy tourist resort, or a banking office, construction company or consultancy firm.
Working towards managing a crisis is no easy undertaking. It can be costly and time consuming and will be an entirely different process for every company.
However, crisis management works, and while it has been less documented in the news there are numerous firms that managed to escape the situations in Libya and Egypt at the appropriate time. With a speedy response to the emerging crisis they were able to evacuate their personnel on a standard flight at standard cost before conditions deteriorated. Those that were less prepared and did not react in time were faced with either locking down and staying put or risking dangerous road movements and the elevated cost of chartering a plane once the situation had deteriorated.
Crisis management preparation quickly became a more cost effective policy than simply waiting to respond to a crisis if and when one arose. Furthermore, in the event that employees suffer harm the cost can be unquantifiable. You cannot put a value on the impact on their family, or indeed a company's reputation.
There are no quick solutions and crisis management should be regarded as a long-term process. Nonetheless the potential benefits in the event of an emergency can be immeasurable. The cost of a crisis can very quickly outweigh the cost of mitigating a crisis, and the impact on company staff, assets and reputation can be irreparable.
As such, firms need to begin implementing measures sooner rather than later because if contingency plans are only reviewed when a crisis is taking place, it may be too late.
John Drake is a senior risk consultant with AKE Group, a British private security firm working in Iraq from before 2003. For further information on crisis management please contact [email protected].
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