University of California World Travelers Play It Safe
- By Dian Schaffhauser
Within 90 minutes of the start of the violence that struck Mumbai in November 2008, Grace Crickette and her staff at the University of California's Office of Risk Services could identify the people from UC who were in India at the time, where they were located, and whether they were at major risk of becoming victims of the shooting and bombing. Plus, they could communicate what they knew with families and co-workers. As it turned out, none of the 60 or so travelers in India were in Mumbai when the attacks occurred. That essential information was ascertained via cell phone, text, e-mail, and landline communication.
The same process was followed earlier this year when an outbreak in Mexico of the virus strain H1N1--swine flu--made headlines in March and April 2009. In that case, the university quickly made decisions about how best to bring students and faculty out of Mexico and get them the medical screenings they needed in the United States.
Crickette credits the success of their emergency outreach programs to a combination of services--one that allows people to register their plans as part of making travel arrangements before they depart and the other a global intelligence monitoring service called iJET Intelligent Risks Systems that's provided through the UC system's travel insurance program.
As chief risk officer for the UC system, Crickette and her team of 14 provide centralized services in the areas of insurance, environmental health and safety, emergency management, and mission continuity (also known as business continuity). Each of the 10 campuses and five medical centers that make up the UC system has its own risk management staff addressing those same areas of concern for its specific location, but for the program design, including insurance, is done centrally through the Office of Risk Services.
As is the case with many aspects of higher education, travel planning is decentralized within the university system. A work trip for a faculty member might be booked through one service, while students traveling in a group might use another service. That posed a management problem. How was the UC system to know who was traveling and where they were heading? This isn't a small matter. At any given moment, said Crickette, up to 2,000 UC system travelers could be located somewhere in the world other than where they normally reside.
"We have people doing wonderful work all over the world with research or medical assistance. We've got all kinds of scientific research being conducted all over the world," she pointed out. "On any given day, I think there's at least one UC person in every country. That's what we do--that's part of education process for students and fulfilling our mission for public service, research, teaching, and patient care."
Moving Away from the Standard
Until mid-2007 the risk management group relied on standard travel insurance programs to help them in times of need. As Crickette explained, it's common for institutions to purchase some type of blanket travel coverage for students, faculty, staff, and companions. As she said, "It can have various components--accidental death and dismemberment benefits; medical coverage, if you get ill overseas; travel assistance, if you lose cash, lose your passport, lose your luggage." Typically, those in need receive a phone number prior to departure that they can call to get help.
In early 2007 Crickette received a digital brochure about an integrated approach that internationally based ACE USA was pursuing for travel insurance that incorporated a new risk management offering. Melding technology and feet-on-the-street intelligence gathering, iJET's services had traditionally been used by multinational corporations and government agencies to protect people and facilities from global threats.
Crickette said she didn't think much about it at the time; but months later when she heard from UC Berkeley that its chancellor had formed a travel group with the intent of promoting more overseas travel among its students and that the campus had expressed concern about the limitations of the travel program in place, she dug up the document and passed it along to a member of her staff for additional research. Whereas traditional travel policies would cover relocation of a traveler in the event that the State Department said it was advisable, the UC system wanted to be able to make that determination for itself. The new program from ACE provided the control and flexibility UC Berkeley wanted, which was truly unique at the time, she said.
A Travel Console for Risk Assessment
Around the same time, the system's environmental health and safety directors had contracted to build a Web site for travelers to plan their trips through. The system posed a series of questions and--based on the answers--would provide a risk assessment. "If it was a group that was going to go river rafting, it would advise them on safety precautions, things they should know to end up with a successful trip," said Crickette.
The UC system used that application to set up a registration portal for travel. It was the modest start of a means to gather information in a central database about all travel taking place among the UC family. That data about travelers could in turn be fed into the iJET system for its monitoring purposes.
From an operations center in Annapolis, iJET's subject matter and regional experts review field reports, news feeds, and other sources of information about health, security, transportation, and other vital topics around the globe. When data comes to light that may require action on the part of its clients, iJET analysts produce alerts. The company's Worldcue Global Control Center system automatically distributes the alerts to clients and travelers who need to be informed about the concern. Then iJET or its clients begin making contact with those people who are potentially affected to determine a plan of action, if any is needed.
Users within the client organization can monitor, locate, and contact travelers through the Worldcue online portal. When an incident occurs, Crickette or another risk manager from the central staff or a specific campus staff will communicate with the family of the traveler and work with iJET to monitor the safety of the person and make sure he or she is taken care of.
Bread Riots in Egypt and a Student in McDonald's
On the surface, the image of iJET people staring into their displays like NASA engineers monitoring the oxygen levels on the Space Shuttle provided the UC staff with a level of comfort. Then the first extraction took place, and that's when they knew they'd found the right service. An extraction is the removal of an individual to a safe location inside or outside the country. Crickette said she remembers it vividly.
In late March 2008, fights began to break out among poor Egyptians forced to stand in line for hours to obtain subsidized bread and other staples. Police broke up riots, people died, and experts began questioning whether the Egyptian government would topple. But what mattered to Crickette was that a UC graduate student was in the country. She knew because iJET had informed her. For hours she attempted to track down the student--who had been kidnapped by Egyptian state security forces for photographing a protest--through his cell phone. Finally, around midnight, she made contact. He was safe, but terrified. For hours she texted and talked with him until the university and the U.S. Embassy could arrange an attorney to negotiate his release and a security professional to move him to safety.
That student, who happened to be a journalism major, wrote an article for the UC system's Risk Services Today newsletter describing what happened and laying out how the travel assistance program came to his rescue. That became a turning point. "His story really helped us to gain traction with the program and really pushed us to a high percentage of travelers registering," Crickette said.
Now, she said, she estimates that about 90 percent of travelers register through the portal. She based that on the number of people who aren't in the system when she makes contact with those who are. When a problem arises, "We ask, is there anybody else with you?" she explained. "They'll say, 'Oh yes, there are two other people.' For whatever reason, they didn't register. We'll add them into system, and that way iJET can begin communicating with them."
At the time she spoke with Campus Technology, Crickette and the risk services staff were monitoring events in Japan, China, Mexico, Indonesia, and Honduras, either because of political unrest or to stay on top of the latest reports regarding outbreaks of H1N1. As she explained, those places where people aren't necessarily in imminent danger still may put up unexpected travel roadblocks. For example, China was being tracked because there was the possibility that UC travelers might face quarantine, "so we were reaching out and letting them know what those quarantine rules are in China--so that when they exit the country, they would know what to expect."
Each morning, when she arrives at her office in Oakland, Crickette gets an update from Program Assistant Shaudreya Waterman. "She comes into my office and says, 'Here's everybody we have in this country. Here's where they are.' I don't have to ask."
Being constantly informed about the bad stuff happening around the world doesn't dampen Crickette's enthusiasm for her job. "It can be very intense," she said. "It just happens to be the most important thing at the time. You set aside the routine and you deal with it."
As for the iJET services and portal technology, she said she considers the duo a "fantastic tool that makes our job easier." But more importantly, she added, "It also makes us much more effective. We know very quickly where there might be somebody potentially in trouble. Most of the time they're not in trouble. Most of the time when we run this list, people aren't in the thick of where the problem is. What's important is that we can communicate with them: 'Don't go to this area.' 'Here's the safest route to get to the airport so you're avoiding anywhere there might be political unrest.' It helps us keep them out of harm's way."