When it’s Time to Go: Considerations for Security-related Evacuation
One of the first historical events I remember in real time was the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. Planes packed to capacity dodging rocket fire, crowds surging over the embassy walls, helicopters whisking people from rooftops… images that for many symbolize security-related evacuations.
Of course, real-life evacuations come in all shapes and sizes – from relatively orderly departures by commercial flights (the preferred option whenever possible) to charter flights, escorted convoys and even the occasional helicopter. Invariably, each event is different, but having been involved in more than a few evacuations over the years there are some general themes to consider:
- Make a plan… and keep it updated. Plans guide decision making, communication, departure preparation and how to use key resources amongst other topics. There are a myriad of evacuation plan formats floating around; in my experience, the most effective are as simple as possible while still covering all the necessary pieces. Whatever the format, keep it updated – especially contact info which can get outdated quickly.
- Engage resources early and often. Wherever possible, don’t wait until you’re headed to the airport to contact your security assistance provider; they’re an invaluable source of information for decision making, tracking events on the ground as a situation deteriorates (before the need to evacuate) and providing guidance about not just the need to depart but the means available to get personnel out of the country. Early engagement also helps ensure the provider has sufficient resources should evacuation become necessary and may be essential to trigger any security evacuation insurance coverage.
- Don’t wait for the US Embassy (or any embassy for that matter). Guidance provided by the US State Department, and other governments, can be useful data for decision making around evacuation – and for organizations working on projects funded by the US or other governments, an “ordered departure” may prompt the withdrawal of personnel. But organizations shouldn’t wait for a government decision to evacuate or for a flight out (unless that’s the only option available). Reflecting this reality, security evacuation insurance coverage increasingly includes departures recommended by the carrier’s designated security response consultants – independent of any official government communication or action.
- Know your options. Having “go-to” evacuation support through a third-party assistance provider or insurance program is important, but be aware of what other options for departure are available as a situation develops. During both the 2013 and 2015 evacuations from South Sudan, organizations on the ground identified local charter or security companies that had evacuation aircraft in place. In many cases, these costs can be claimed against evacuation insurance if the embedded assistance provider is notified before evacuation occurs.
- Prepare to shelter in place. “Get our people out of there” is an understandable sentiment as a situation deteriorates. But sometimes conditions on the ground don’t cooperate — the airport road is blocked, ongoing unrest makes ground movement unsafe, etc. In those cases, the only option may be to shelter in place at a safe location until the situation stabilizes. Effective sheltering requires supplies – food, water, etc. – so plan accordingly.
- Be ready to move. Windows of opportunity to depart may open and close suddenly and without warning. Personnel should be ready to move quickly – bags packed, vehicles ready, offices secured, etc. Pre-departure prep is a key component of any plan.
- Don’t forget the local staff. Always a potentially sensitive topic, but local national staff are generally not evacuated from their home country (there are exceptions to every rule, of course). That doesn’t mean they aren’t a part of the planning process. In some cases, local national staff can be released from work and allowed to return to “home” towns/regions/villages where they may have a deeper support network during unrest. There may be roles for helping monitor the office, maintain communication with partner organizations and update the HQ in the absence of international staff – all dependent on the security situation, of course.
- Debrief and address stress. Once personnel are out of the impacted country and in a safe haven, it’s easy to feel like the job is done. Debriefing about how the process worked – or didn’t work – is essential to help prepare for the inevitable “next time.” And while there is understandable relief once the evacuation is completed, addressing the stress and potential trauma that personnel faced is essential staff care.
Every evacuation will have unique pieces, so these considerations may play out differently in various situations. Pre-planning, informed decision making and effective use of key resources are universally essential components of any evacuation… and risk management more broadly. As always, these are plans that will hopefully never be used, but as the old saying goes: better to have the plan and not need it than need the plan and not have it.