The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted the global threat landscape. The economic fallout of the health crisis has contributed to a spike in crime—including murder, gun violence, carjackings, and kidnappings—which has heightened risks and uncertainty. As global travel picks up again, travelers in unfamiliar territory are particularly vulnerable.
These heightened challenges exist alongside traditional security threats, such as mass shootings, global conflict, and natural disasters. Sasithorn Moy, Global Head of Physical Security at Blackstone, shared how “it is really important that we take an all-hazards approach and ensure a basic framework is in place that can be adapted and flexed as and when incidents unfold to ensure the safety and security of our employees.”
A firm believer in leveraging technology to enhance safety and security, Moy said that while technology is important, it is the capabilities that back it up that really matter—for example, extraction services, a 24x7 command center, and the ability to deploy guards at a moment’s notice.
Where are your employees?
Travel has picked up, approaching pre-pandemic levels. This is especially true for North America and Western Europe. Michael Ballard, director of intelligence at Global Guardian, said the big outlier is China, where authorities have locked down cities in response to COVID-19 infections. The Chinese government’s “zero COVID” approach is hurting the global economy, supply chains, and will also impact travel, said Ballard.
As most people were forced to work from home early in the pandemic, Moy said security professionals adapted to the challenge of protecting a dispersed workforce even before business travel picked up. Drawing on this experience, she laid out a basic framework for ensuring the safety of employees, no matter where in the world they might be.
“Knowing the whereabouts of employees is key to understanding whether they have been impacted by an event,” said Moy. Employees today can work anywhere in the world as long as they have a laptop and a WiFi connection. “This certainly poses challenges from a physical security standpoint in trying to understand where our people are, and also from a cyber standpoint, when ensuring the firm’s data and information is secured,” Moy said.
It is fairly basic practice for organizations to centralize business travel bookings, which makes it easy to know which city an employee is visiting, which hotel they are staying at, and what flights they are taking. But, Moy said, there are some gaps in this process because travels plans may change at the last minute and once in a foreign location business travelers may venture out when not in the office or at their hotel. The challenge of tracking people is compounded when employees are on vacation and not obligated to inform their employers about their whereabouts.
“We as security professionals would love to understand where our people are so that we can be more proactive when they are traveling to make sure that they are safe,” said Moy, adding, “But more often than not, we are advised after the fact when something has happened. The phone call comes to us to say: ‘Hey, I need assistance.’”
Leveraging technology. It’s about the services that are behind the app.
While travelers typically don’t hesitate to share their location information with ridesharing apps, search engines, or social media, Moy said privacy concerns keep them from sharing their travel plans with their employers. Mobile apps can help address this challenge.
“One way to evolve is to understand where our employees are through mobile technology,” said Moy. Travel safety apps allow employers to send alerts and allow employees to voluntarily share information about where they are traveling.
Global Guardian’s travel app, which is backed up by a 24x7 Operations Center, is an example of such technology. Global Guardian CEO and President Dale Buckner said users can control adoption of the app. In a crisis, “you want an app where you press a button… and now we know where you are,” said Buckner. This technology allows firms to balance employee privacy with an ability to account for their employees in a crisis.
Moy said the key to driving adoption of a mobile app is to incorporate this functionality into everyday use. “If it is only something that is used in an emergency, people will not even remember that it’s there when the time comes,” she explained.
But more importantly, Moy said: “It’s not about the app. It’s about the value of the service that is behind the app; it is the help that we can get you if we are aware that you are impacted by a particular event.”
It is, therefore, important to educate employees that the information that they share is not only going to be used for their safety and to provide assistance during a crisis, but is also going to help keep them informed, said Moy. At the very least, if employees are reluctant to share information, an app can be used to send them real-time notifications and alerts.
A mobile app can also be used by employees to request help from a 24x7 operations center; they don’t need to make a phone call. Moreover, Moy said, when most people are traveling internationally, they don’t know what the local equivalent of 911 is, and even if they were to place a call to local emergency responders, they may be faced with a language barrier. A mobile app is “a huge value-add,” she said.
The importance of communication
“Key to accounting for people’s safety is communication,” said Moy. “Since the way we communicate has evolved, the way we reach out to employees… needs to evolve as well,” she added.
Traditional automated notification systems take a long time to account for people because they depend on people manually confirming that they are safe. If a person is injured, they may often not be in a position to respond to a phone call from their employer. “That is why technology and data are such an important part of the people accountability process,” said Moy.
While agreeing that communication is important, Buckner said the ability to communicate is often impacted during a crisis. On 9/11, for example, mobile phone service was impacted in most of Lower Manhattan. Recounting Global Guardian’s recent experience evacuating people from Ukraine, Buckner said: “People in Mariupol that were buried in cellars and subways, there’s no alerts, there’s no checking in. We had to go find them.” It is crucial, therefore, that companies’ data about their personnel is accurate.
Responding to a crisis: Diversify and test resources
It is virtually impossible to provide every traveling employee with their own personal security guard. Besides, Moy said, it is a challenge to maintain relationships with security professionals in every single district in which a company operates or does business.
“The issues that arise usually require a cross-functional response as well, it is not just a security problem when things happen,” said Moy, adding that this is why it is important to have a diverse mix of “proven and tested vendors” that have local networks.
It is equally important, she said, to establish relationships with vendors during “peacetime, so that when crisis strikes, I’m not scrambling to find the best resource in a particular jurisdiction and meeting them for the first time at that time of the incident.”
“Once it goes sideways, you really need to know that the rigor is there to get you through a crisis,” Buckner agreed.
An evolving threat landscape
Buckner believes consistent global disruption is the norm. He said that rather than going back to business as usual, it is critical that companies act on lessons learned from recent crises and take a hard look at their vendors—insurance plans and duty of care providers.
Ballard pointed out some global hot spots that are simmering. Besides Ukraine, where Russian forces are struggling against a determined Ukrainian force, there is the potential for conflict in Israel, Colombia, and Sri Lanka. Ballard said that the threat of a cyberattack from Russia is also very real as its military struggles in Ukraine and Western pressure in the form of sanctions builds.
Dr. Shelly Weisenfeld, medical director at Global Guardian, said in surveys most Americans cite the war in Ukraine as a bigger barrier to travel in Europe than the pandemic. “That is certainly a game changer as of last year,” she said.
As for the pandemic, Weisenfeld said global health risks vary based on vaccination rates, immunity status, as well as local health infrastructures. “We certainly know that rural is different than the urban communities, and the industrial countries are very different than the Third World, particularly when we are looking at access to health care, public health messaging, vaccinations, etc.,” she said. For example, she pointed out that the pandemic is playing out differently in parts of the world where COVID-19 vaccination uptake is high as opposed to other parts with low rates of vaccination. “It is a whole different realm,” she said. Similarly, risks vary among younger and older populations. “We actually have reasonably good predictors about who is going to do well and who actually requires additional attention,” said Weisenfeld.
Further, Weisenfeld said, COVID-19 infection rates vary based on geography. Globally, she said, the West—the United States and Western Europe—is at the tail end of the pandemic, while Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East are behind. “China is really the outlier,” she added, referring to that country’s controversial response to the pandemic.
Noting that the “newsworthiness” of COVID-19 will begin to diminish, Weisenfeld said: “To suggest that the pandemic is over may be a little shortsighted, but we [in the West] certainly now are looking [at the pandemic] in the rear-view mirror.”
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