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Phoning Home: The Basics of Emergency & Incident Reporting

You can’t begin managing an emergency until you know there is an emergency. Self-evident? Of course. Although, all too often incident reporting is left to chance – “staff know to call when it’s something serious” or, “our experienced travelers know which phones work where they travel.” Maybe. The better solution is to ensure travelers and internationally assigned personnel have reliable communications tools and clear procedures outlining when, what and to whom to report in the event of an emergency. Doing so helps speed response to events as they unfold and assists organizations in meeting their duty of care obligations to staff and other travelers.


With their rapidly evolving global portability, smartphones are often the primary means of communicating during an emergency or developing situation. Smartphones provide the ability to communicate by voice, as well as text, over both cellular networks as well as wifi – providing some built in redundancy. Other considerations:

  • Make sure your phone works – While major U.S. mobile phone companies increasingly offer international roaming, the reliability of carriers varies. Wherever possible, confirm best options with recent travelers to your destination. Organizations should consider a pool of “loaner” phones for those without an option for international roaming on their own phones.
  • Smartphone apps – From WhatsApp to Skype, apps may provide more flexible options – individual and group communication, voice, text – and operate on both cellular & wifi connections. Some medical and security assistance providers’ apps enable two-way communication.
  • Satellite phones – In higher risk environments, or locations where mobile phone networks are vulnerable to disruption, satellite phones may provide critical backup, but make sure you know how to use them.
  • Contact cards – Storing key phone numbers in a smartphone is important, but having a written backup is essential. Pairing these key numbers with quick reference emergency response checklists on a wallet-sized card can provide personnel with critical information at their fingertips.


Having the right tools in place to communicate is only part of the solution. Clear guidance about reporting incidents, emergencies and developing situations is also essential to support personnel in need and connect them with critical resources. Key elements of a successful incident reporting system include guidance on:

  • When to report – Take the subjective decision making (call when it’s “serious”) out of the equation, and provide clear thresholds for when to report incidents. Examples include:
    • Direct harm or threat of harm to personnel – report immediately
    • Property damage or loss over $1000 U.S., – report within 6 hours
    • Property damage under $1000 U.S. – report within 24 hours
  • What to report – Providing relevant details is essential for understanding the scope and scale of an event and helping determine which available resources may aid in incident management. Important information includes:
    • What occurred?
    • When and where did the incident occur?
    • Who was involved and their status (injured, detained, etc.)? Include information about the organization’s personnel and third parties
    • Current location and additional contact details if available
    • Immediate response – what is being done/should be done (first aid, ambulance, etc.)
    • Time of next contact
  • To whom to report – Assistance provider(s) are most often the first point of contact in the event of immediate harm to staff (injury, illness) or threat of serious harm (ongoing security incident with direct exposure, etc.). Organizational emergency points of contact, (security managers or focal points, senior management, etc.), are more typically the second call, after an assistance provider, or the first call in more general security situations that don’t immediately impact personnel (civil unrest, terrorism, etc.). Dedicated, 24/7 phone numbers are essential.  And have back-ups to any primary emergency numbers, especially for organizational contacts.

The goals of initial reporting are to collect relevant information and provide immediate guidance where necessary to help stabilize or begin managing the situation. Assistance providers are set up precisely with this goal in mind. Organizational emergency points of contact should be prepared for their role – what information to gather, appropriate guidance, key resources and how to alert others at HQ (crisis management team, etc.).

Timely vs. accurate reporting? Anyone who has managed a few significant incidents knows that initial reports may include limited or inaccurate information. This is especially true of large scale events where sources are largely third party – for example, erroneous reports of an attack at the State Department on September 11, 2001. While it’s important to confirm as much information as possible through multiple, reliable sources, don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Early reporting, even with inherent inaccuracies or limited information, allows organizations to begin the response process, alert key personnel and identify possible resources.

Will most travelers know intuitively when and who to call in an emergency? Maybe. But why risk that my interpretation of “serious” is different from someone else’s? Providing personnel with clear guidance about incident reporting, and the tools to communicate, helps streamline emergency response and support to travelers or others in need.