Quake, wars, unrest, make evacuation big business

LONDON Wed Mar 16, 2011 3:47pm GMT

Embassy officials wait to board the German-chartered ferry Santorini Express after it berthed with some 500 oil workers of various nationalities from the Benghazi area of Libya on board in Valletta's Grand Harbour March 1, 2011. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

Embassy officials wait to board the German-chartered ferry Santorini Express after it berthed with some 500 oil workers of various nationalities from the Benghazi area of Libya on board in Valletta's Grand Harbour March 1, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi

LONDON (Reuters) - With revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, conflict in Libya and Ivory Coast and now an earthquake in Japan, specialist international crisis management, security and evacuation firms are busier than ever.

Major corporations and overstretched foreign ministries have turned to the handful of companies running private 24-hour operations rooms and field teams -- often staffed by ex-military personnel -- to help get people out and safeguard assets.

That ranges from facilitating air tickets and advising on safe passage, protection and refuge options to chartering planes and ships and occasional liaison with military rescue missions.

"It's been frantic," said Tom Frankland, a former British Army tank officer and now operations director for London-based crisis management firm Northcott Global Solutions. "We had Tunisia and Egypt, then Libya was hugely busy -- a mixture of energy and government clients who wanted help with evacuations."

Numbers were huge. At one stage, the firm was dealing with 10 separate requests totalling some 6,000 potential evacuees of many nationalities. Another firm, Control Risks, says it arranged the repatriation of 2,000 Chinese oil workers by air.

Now, Frankland and team are pulling together contingency plans to extract clients from Japan if current post-quake nuclear worries turn into a full-scale disaster.

They are also keeping an eye on worsening violence in Bahrain, where security forces attacked protesters on Tuesday.

Northcott is in its first year in business competing with much more established firms, but say they have had no problem finding work. Some of the evacuations have been paid for by pre-existing insurance contracts, others paid for upfront by firms and governments whose contingency planning had failed.

"I have to say it has played into our hands," said Frankland. "We are using it to make the case that our clients should look at purchasing political evacuation insurance to compromise their current medical plans."

Some hope evacuation cover could take its place alongside kidnap and ransom (K&R) protection, which grew from modest beginnings in the 1970s to become a staple part of the insurance portfolio of many firms operating overseas. K&R policies provide the cost of ransom and a specialist hostage negotiator.

EX-SAS SPECIALISTS

"We're certainly having more people coming back to us and asking what we can offer in the longer term," said Fraser Bomford, head of intelligence for British consultancy AKE -- which bases its operations room in Hereford near the headquarters of Britain's Special Air Service SAS.L regiment from which its founders and many staff originally come.

"It's been a wake-up call to people. I think some risk managers hadn't really thought through the needs in terms of political evacuation."

AKE -- already a major player in the K&R industry -- also runs hostile environment training courses for both media and other private and aid sector clients as well as providing its own security guards. It says demand for both is up.

Japan's Friday earthquake produced a tsunami that killed several thousand or more and left a nuclear power plant on the edge of meltdown. Radiation levels in nearby areas including Tokyo were rising but officials urged calm and said there was no threat to health outside an immediate evacuation area.

"A widespread evacuation from Tokyo would be a hugely difficult undertaking, both for ourselves and the Japanese government," said Richard Fenning, chief executive officer of Control Risks -- one of the largest crisis response, security and corporate intelligence firms with a string of operations rooms worldwide.

"No one I know is really predicting that at the moment. But we are taking calls from clients who had operations in the tsunami and earthquake area and now need assistance with recovery and finding people."

Libya tested the capacity of companies operating there to the limits, even oil giants used to operating in dangerous places. Industry insiders say many overstretched firms -- including some crisis management operators themselves -- had to subcontract in outside help.

Under fire from the media for a perceived slow response to evacuate British nationals from Libya, Britain's government ultimately sent special forces, warships and Hercules transport aircraft to collect oil workers trapped by the fighting.

But Control Risks' Fenning says the burden is shifting and workers may increasingly expect their company, not their government, to extract them.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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