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Special: Congressional "Hearing on Safety in Study Abroad Programs"

Statement of Brett Laquercia

Director, Business Development, Security Services, Kroll Risk Consulting Services, Inc.
U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Education and the Workforce
Hearing on the Safety of Study Abroad Programs
October 4, 2000

My name is Brett Laquercia. I am Director of Business Development for the Security Services division of Kroll Risk Consulting Services, Inc.

I would like to thank the chairman and the members of the subcommittee for inviting me to testify at today's hearing on the safety of academic study abroad programs.

My purpose here today is:

To outline the risks for which academic study abroad programs must be prepared;

To describe my impressions of the academic community's safety and security preparedness for study abroad programs;

To outline the measures academia can take to reduce the level of risk to which it exposes its students in academic study abroad programs.

To begin I would like to describe the qualifications of my firm and myself to be present on this panel:

Since 1972 Kroll has been serving businesses, governments and non-profits in combating fraud, gathering information on potential partners and adversaries, and protecting their interests from physical security and non-physical threats against their interests.

Kroll advises organizations on the safety and security of their campuses and office installations, for example after the World Trade Center was bombed, Kroll was retained to redesign security systems, policies and procedures there; Kroll designs organizational travel safety and security policies, especially for corporations, in fact Kroll staff advised the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security after the Flight 800 disaster;

The firm has worked for the US Government, States and Municipalities as well as foreign governments including Haiti, Kuwait, the Philippines, Russia, Brazil and South Africa, on matters ranging from tracking the global assets of deposed dictators and regimes to investigating official corruption and fraud and training police forces on countering organized crime and conventional and cyber-terrorism.

With over 50 offices on 6 continents, Kroll is the largest firm of its kind, and conducts more than 50% of its work outside the borders of the United States.

In the 8 years I have been an employee of Kroll I have advised hundreds of major corporations and some universities on how they can mitigate the risks faced by their employees and students traveling on business or study abroad programs.

What are the risks that study abroad programs ought to anticipate and be prepared to mitigate and respond to?

Simply stated, these risks include natural disasters; terrorist acts; petty crime; carjacking; kidnapping; rape; homicide; civil unrest; coup's d'etat; extortion; official corruption; health hazards, and other threatening or disruptive situations.

It is my opinion that the Government and corporate community are, to a large degree, at the forefront of preparedness and that universities lag far behind these when it comes to caring for the wellbeing of those whom they send on travel outside the United States. I base this opinion on the fact that Kroll is the worlds largest security consulting firm, and that the greatest number of Kroll's clients for travel related security services comes from former group, while the latter is barely represented among them.

Based on personal experience with my firm and its clients, it is my opinion that in the aggregate, the academic community has rarely availed itself, (and there are certainly exceptions) of the services it can utilize to reduce its level of risk, and better inform itself of conditions in prospective and actual locations chosen for study abroad programs. Although Kroll has been retained by numerous universities to investigate incidents and to proactively improve security standards on campuses domestically, we have rarely been retained to advise on study abroad programs. In fact, most often, universities have balked at paying the fees that would be involved in any such consultation and so many who have reached out to us for help, have ultimately foregone our assistance.

Let me relate a common problem that universities have shared with me during consultations: Group leaders "on the ground" may have occasion to call in to the school administration for advice when some adverse incident strikes or is threatening. A common complaint of those leaders however is that the schools are often far less informed than they are, and so are often not in a position to direct them on appropriate courses of action. Administrators are often left to blindly search the Internet, overwhelmed by volume and unsubstantiated sources, or the State Department's information service, offering a single perspective often not specific enough to their needs. In a moment of crisis, they should have access to information that is relatively tailored to their needs, easy to navigate and that garners current, applicable results, which they can immediately put to work.

What resources are available to universities and how can these mitigate risk and save lives?

Assuming it is possible and likely that at some point before a trip, students will be convened to discuss the program, time should be set aside to enable a consultant to conduct a safe travel seminar for the group. This will couple common sense travel safety and security advice with specific advice on the destination country and the cities on the itinerary. Additionally, a security consulting firm can review the prospective itinerary and make recommendations with regard to "go" versus "no-go" locales, and specific precautions to be taken in different areas.

Immediate results will be gained by accessing an appropriate subscription information service providing political risk assessment of countries and travel security advisories for cities around the world.

Risk assessments provide daily updates as well as in depth country analyses on the current conditions and forces shaping daily events. To help in planning: Universities would be able to more intelligently assess their choices of study abroad host countries from a security standpoint by accessing information on: political and social conditions, the likelihood of near term change (whether it is anticipated to be peaceful or violent), crime trends and whether foreigners, students or American's in particular have been targeted. Additionally, information would be available on terrorist activity, and the coincidence of significant local anniversaries (which may result in unrest or adverse activity) with the planned dates of the program.

A city specific travel advisory service offers brief, but valuable information on airports (i.e. scams, alerts, restriction, requirements and resources), latest local news and city calendar, local do's and don'ts and tips for safe travel within and between cities, including how to identify a real taxi versus a pirate, whether or not it is safe to rent and drive a car oneself, and alerts to scams and how to recognize them early and get away before it is too late. These also include health warnings, and emergency contact numbers for embassies, consulates, police, ambulance and direct dial codes to reach US operators.

Once the group is in place in a host country, a Daily Intelligence Briefing should be perused each day by an administrator back home to ensure that the school is aware of changing conditions, if any, before they receive a call from group leaders. Furthermore, such a service would provide business hour access to risk analysts who could advise on the meaning of events being reported on.

The next measure ought to be contracting for an Emergency Hotline. This would be monitored 24-hours a day by trained crisis management personnel. All students and group leaders would have a wallet card with the number they could call in the event of any emergency. Depending on the urgency of the matter, the call would trigger a report and the operator would immediately contact one of the school's 24-hour designees, based on the nature of the emergency, at which point crisis management measures could be immediately implemented and precious hours, and in some cases days can be gained. Without such a line (coupled with direct dial US operator codes) it is difficult to ensure consistency in crisis response procedures and thus utilization of all of the resources a school may have at its disposal. Callers may otherwise reach voice mails, or contact uninformed or simply the wrong people, and lose critical time in averting a crisis.

Finally, tying all of this together is a crisis management plan, which takes into consideration the likely and potential crises which can be anticipated, and lays out a series of steps and responses to differing scenarios. The plan is used as a rough road map for the crisis team, which is be assembled as part of the creation of the plan, or insertion of a section addressing study abroad programs into any existing plan. The plan should especially lay the groundwork for evacuation, should this become necessary, as well as responding to kidnapping, serious illness and loss of life. The crisis team will benefit from periodic "exercises" or "table-top crisis simulations" which put them through the motions and teach them what can go wrong, and how a plan may facilitate, but also may not anticipate certain complications. The benefit is that the crisis team is far better equipped to react efficiently and with positive results to a real emergency after having "lived" through a simulation.

Some additional considerations are:

Conducting background checks of local "in-country" contacts, travel agencies, and partners. Too much is at stake to go on word of mouth, or simply choose through advertising. Due diligence may unearth information that will lead to choosing another contractor or partner and may save hassle, expense and even lives.

Contracting with a Medevac organization. In-country healthcare can be dicey in the developing world, and these organizations can help to manage a case remotely with excellent results, and where necessary can provide air ambulance services.

Considering kidnap, ransom and extortion insurance. The insurer and crisis consultant are usually closely aligned to make the crisis response process painless and efficient, and since the insurer has an interest in a safe and speedy resolution they are both helpful and knowledgeable during a difficult and often confusing time. Kidnappings can extend anywhere from 24-hours to over a year. In the event that a kidnapping occurs, not only are the costs of the ransom covered, but consultant fees are also covered, and on a long-term engagement these can add up to significant amounts.

All of these components work together to open a security umbrella over the group, and improve readiness and preparedness to respond quickly which, in many cases will avert disaster, and in many more will speed recovery therefrom, but implementing even a single one of these will make a difference.