This article features a conversation with Alberto Monguzzi, who works as Global Lead in the Business Continuity function of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The IFRC, established in 1919, is a global membership organization operating in the field of humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence. It is active in several fields, such as disaster preparedness and disaster response, climate risk, accessible education, equality and inclusion, and humanitarian diplomacy. To date, it employs over 20,000 people and it is active in more than 100 countries.

In this article, we talk about the recent volcanic eruption and tsunami in Tonga, as a case study to highlight best practices and useful advice for crisis managers that operate on a global scale. In particular, we provide insights on how to handle three main aspects of a crisis: crisis rooms, crisis communications, and travel security.

How did you organize your crisis rooms?

Due to time difference, the crisis room was decentralised and it was managed by our office in Fiji. We took this decision since the scale of the disaster – in terms of the number of people affected – was manageable by our local teams. The event was still rather significant, given that the eruption impacted the lives of over 50,000 individuals; however, its scale did not require the intervention of additional foreign teams. Meanwhile, we set up a working unit in Europe for remote support, especially for mass media monitoring and updates. The ability to rely so heavily on local teams was due to their high levels of preparedness. They were fully prepared, equipped, and trained to deal with a local emergency.

At IFRC we have built a global standard for our staff when it comes to preparedness, supported by a crisis management policy that includes two main areas: external disasters, for which we provide support, and internal crises, which falls under my responsibility. Depending on their needs, our staff undergo specific training.

Overall, our training framework rests upon the seven pillars of duty of care: risk assessment, mitigation measures, contingency measures, information sharing, training, expertise, and mentoring. Normally, the more junior members of staff would be trained on the first pillars, which form the basis for the rest of the framework. The higher the seniority (and the responsibilities), the more advanced is the training.

How did you maintain stable and reliable communications?

Communications took place mainly via satellite as most networks were not available. Local teams played a key role in providing updates from the ground, since the time difference made it difficult for the European team to stay on top of the news in a timely manner. Furthermore, we received a lot of information from open sources, such as traditional and social media.

In my experience, a trick of the trade is to select four communication channels among traditional media that send out alerts and rely on them to get breaking news on events. Personally, I have picked CNN, BBC, Reuters, and France 24 (which has a good coverage on Africa). Live news channels are useful in receiving updates, as well as social media and streaming channels such as YouTube live streams are extremely useful.

One useful app I use is called Factal, which is useful because it scans all social media and provides updates. News and social media aggregators come in handy since you can often tailor the search to your needs and get updates on official communications at a glance. We could argue that on one hand social media have simplified the life of crisis manager, as they give you a real-time vision of what is happening; however, you, or a member of your team need to be able to filter out all the noise and specific professional apps can help you with that.

Differently, when communicating internally we don’t use social media, but we rely on official, safe, and tracked messaging services (e.g.: email). This is also due to the fact that, in the case of a legal dispute, the obligation of providing evidence of correct practices rests with us. Therefore, our communications need to be official and secure. This is the case if there are situations that are life-threatening or involve physical injuries.

What about travel security?

In the case of Tonga, the main issue with staff travels was related to quarantine protocols. The country has not had any cases of covid, so anyone entering had to quarantine for weeks before they could become operative. Hence, due to this and time differences, we preferred to rely on local offices. As a general procedure, travel security starts with a request for authorization to travel. Then you receive a welcome package with all the contacts for arrangements such as accommodation and transport services that are validated by security.

It is also worth stressing that there is an individual responsibility that lies with the traveller. They should access our internal info and database and understand the challenges they might face. For instance, one of our colleagues was not allowed to enter Dubai, after getting out of Afghanistan, because they did not have a PCR Covid-19 test.

Therefore, we now have a form where we must report all our general information, emergency contacts, next of kin, medical conditions, and digital footprint. Staff operating in high-risk areas can be told to remove or modify their digital footprint as to avoid having repercussions from violent and armed groups based on personal identity visible on social media. In the case of extreme situations, such as war zones and territories with a heavy presence of armed groups, we ask our staff to also provide their social media credentials.

This is because in the case of a kidnapping, social media accounts should be shut down or at least remain under control, otherwise they could offer perpetrators a tactical advantage. Cases of kidnappers using social media to strengthen their position and gather intelligence are not rare and they place the victim in an even greater danger; hence, these measures apply in the interest of personal safety and in the face of a very real threat. During a negotiation, possessing key information about those involved can make the difference between saving a life or failing to do so; thus, we cannot afford to take risks in this sense.

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Author: Gianluca Riglietti