Terror hot lines for hot spot expats

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

These are nervous times for expats in many countries. But as Marc Champion, from CareerJournalEurope, reports, times of tension are boom times for security professionals.

Tony Lafrenais isn't your typical call-centre operator.

But then, the massively-built veteran of Britain's elite special forces gets some pretty unusual phone calls at the corporate hot line where he works in central London.

Take the recent call from a client who was worried by the sound of gunfire outside her school in the troubled West African nation of Ivory Coast.

 "I asked her: 'Are the rounds going over your head? Do they make a cracking noise?' " recalls the 57-year-old Lafrenais, whose last job was helping businessmen in Bogota, Colombia, avoid kidnap.

The answer was "no," so he told her to stay put and not to worry; the shooting wasn't nearby.

Another cellphone call came last year from a businessman at the Swissotel in Istanbul, Turkey.

The hotel had just been seized by Chechen rebels to protest their war with Russia, and they were separating out Russian citizens from the other guests.

The businessman's wife was Russian, although she spoke perfect English. "Lose her passport; stay quiet," advised Lafrenais. It worked.

Open round the clock

International terrorism has spawned a growth business in 24-hour hot lines such as this one run by the UK-based security consultants Control Risks Group.

In the year since the September 11 attacks on America, Control Risks says it has doubled the client base for its CR-24 service to about 120 companies.

US-based Kroll Inc's client list for a similar hot-line service has increased 60 percent to around 90 companies. And the year-old Virginia-based hot-line service at Armor Group, a division of Armor Holdings Inc., has grown to 30 companies.

"It's a recognition that the world is a more dangerous place than five years ago," says Jeff Schlanger, chief operations officer of Kroll's security-services group.

"At least in the US there's also a perception that Americans are more specifically targeted."

"The key is when you have employees who get themselves in a sticky situation, they can make a phone call and know there's someone on the end of the line that has the right skill sets," says John Cholewa, a director of the American Society for Industrial Security and head of physical security for Sprint Corp.

Many big companies with global risk exposure, such as BP PLC, have in-house hot lines.

Like Kroll and Armor, Control Risks declines to name its clients, but it says they are mainly large manufacturing, finance and extraction companies with a global presence.

Typically, these clients pay a monthly fee of about EUR 1,500 TO EUR 3,000 for the service, says CR-24 director Peter Cheney.

Client companies' employees and their families carry around a plastic card or sticker with the number of a dedicated phone line to call CR-24's 11 operators, who rotate on 12-hour shifts.

The team includes four former officers of the British special forces; a counter-terrorist team trainer from outside the UK; former police, domestic intelligence, army and air force officers; as well as travel and other civilian specialists.

A day at the console

On a recent day, four of the CR-24 team were quietly taking calls, trawling the Internet for news and sending out emails from the circular console that forms the heart of the unit.

Each call was logged onto a database where details of clients' operations, locations and security and evacuation programs were a click away. A blackboard marked with about 60 client interests in 17 likely hot spots was covered over to protect client identities.

John Noble, also a special-forces veteran, said it was a busy day. Clients were calling mainly about the situations in Kuwait, Indonesia and Ivory Coast.

At the same time, the team was counseling clients with a presence in countries like Kuwait on what they should do in case of a war in Iraq.

When an event such as last month's bombing of the Sari nightclub in Bali occurs, the team calls clients in the immediate area to alert them and sends out e-mail advisories, Noble says.

Lou Lawson, another special-forces veteran, was on duty as the calls started coming in that weekend.

One US client based in Indonesia had heard that propane-gas cylinders were used in the attack and was concerned about management of his own company's hydrogen cylinders.

Lawson checked and discovered that the propane traces had come not from the bomb but from propane gas used for cooking by restaurants along the strip that was hit.

In fact, much of the business is about reassurance, and the vast majority of calls are routine, says Cheney.

Clients mainly want to know where it's safe to travel, what to do when they've lost a passport, or whether they should be worried about a nearby riot they just saw on CNN.

Even for the handful of more serious incidents the hot line handles each week, the advice given tends to be common-sense stuff, Cheney says.

Which raises the question of why business travelers need some of the world's most highly trained soldiers on the end of the phone line when they're making travel plans.

"You need to be able to minimise risk to yourself in a dangerous situation," says Lawson, 60, who carries an impressive scar from a broken bottle swung at him during riots outside a Greek army camp in Cyprus in 1964.

"It's the same skill no matter what the risk level."

January 2003

Marc Champion writes for the Wall Street Journal.

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