Given that Paris is one the most popular tourist destinations in the world, thousands of foreign visitors were caught there during the brutal attacks earlier this month. Although crisis management is typically the furthest thing from a vacationer’s mind, these events emphasized how important it can be.
Travel is a uniquely vulnerable experience for any number of reasons, but never so much as when violence strikes. In the face of a crisis, our instinct drives us back to homes and loved ones, but on the road, those safe places are very far away.
Ignore buffoons who like to parade their ignorance as some sort of machismo. During a natural disaster or violence like the terror attacks, it’s all about getting out and staying safe on unfamiliar ground. The first instinct of most non-emergency responders will be to run. Trust it.
And trust your instincts. One of the ways that travelers are particularly vulnerable to danger is that they’re less likely to recognize when things are abnormal or out of place. People in general are primed to explain away a crisis as it begins to unfold, simply because it’s so far away from usual that our brain slots away gunfire as street work and explosions as loud movies. It’s not about stupidity but Occam’s razor: 99 times out of 100, it will be street work and Michael Bay.
Travelers are at particular risk for this, because they have little or no context for danger. At home they might consider street work during suppertime odd, but in Bangkok maybe not. A visitor doesn’t want to make a scene by leaping at every unexpected sound, especially when that’s what they left home to find.
Don’t trust those instincts.
“You have to overcome that initial disbelief and recognize the situation for what it is,” said Brian McNary, vice president of Pinkerton’s Global Risk Group. “Very few people are prepared to do that. As a representative of the entire population, very few people are prepared to accept that that’s the situation that they’re in.”
One client of McNary’s had a husband and wife in Paris present during one of the attacks. At first, he said, they believed it was simply fireworks and took the muzzle flares as confirmation.
“But then people started falling down around them,” he said, “and it became very real. At that point, there was panic as they’re looking for some sort of relative safety, and what they noticed was that shop owners were closing the metal gates, the metal security gates over their shops, in an effort to protect the people inside.”
“In this particular instance the couple was able to sneak inside a metal gate as it closed,” he added.
Running is absolutely the right move. The best thing to do during a crisis, for everyone, is clear the scene.
One of the most dangerous, vicious beliefs of America’s current era is the action-hero myth. Far too many people to count seem to genuinely believe that in a crisis, whether it be typhoon or active shooter, they would live out a power fantasy. In reality “rushing the shooter” or charging into the storm is a good way to get killed and clog up emergency services.
During a catastrophe, evacuate. For a shooter, run first and hide second. Only as a matter of desperate last resort should any civilian consider fighting back. Civilians at dinner aren’t prepared or armed to confront an active shooter.
“It’s absolutely the last option,” said McNary, “because most people just aren’t well prepared for violence in general and typically lack the means to appropriately respond to the degree of force that’s being exerted. You don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.”
“It is,” he added, “unlikely you’re going to succeed.”
Expect cellular networks to go down in the wake of a catastrophe, so seek out Wi-Fi to contact family members and (if on business) colleagues. Wireless services almost always overload as virtually every user tries to get on his phone at the same time, creating the digital equivalent of a bank run.
It’s also possible that police themselves may shut off service in order to cut future attackers off from each other. When the cell phones go down, don’t panic. It means everything is functioning as it should. Internet, however, will still function. To contact people back home, travelers should seek out Wi-Fi connections and use social media, instant messaging or VOIP programs that only need a data connection. Social media is a perfect tool for this, as it also works as a broadcast platform, eliminating the need to contact anyone individually.
Business travelers should make sure to contact their employer, which will often have assets it can mobilize on their behalf.
In the immediate wake of a crisis travelers should above all else get off the streets. Get back to the hotel, or find one if necessary, but find someplace inside to go and stay. This may impose extra costs for travelers who didn't plan on spending the night, but a city which has just suffered an attack makes a very tempting target for further violence.
“It’s not unreasonable at all to prepare for a secondary wave of attacks,” McNary said. Emergency responders present very attractive targets for terror. An attack may seek to overload emergency response abilities by launching further attacks while local assets are already engaged, creating the real life equivalent of a denial of service assault.
Which is why, in the days that follow, many experts simply recommend evacuation.
For travelers with ample time even leaving to another city for a few days can be smart. Others should get home at their first opportunity. Don’t seek out transportation hubs in the immediate aftermath due to the risks involved, but do contact your carrier to begin assessing options
Americans in need of medical attention should first and foremost rely on local emergency services. They will be the best positioned to provide immediate care.
In the absence of an emergency, a traveler is best advised to stay away from local hospitals as with any other major hub, both due to crowding and risks. A hotel concierge, credit card travel agent, insurance company or general resource can direct you to non-emergency services as necessary.
Business travelers should, as mentioned above, contact their employer to discuss what resources the company can marshal on their behalf. Individuals are best advised to call their airlines or, if they don’t know who else to contact, should reach out to the most local U.S. embassy or consulate. They exist for this purpose.
The State Department operates an after-hours hotline for citizens in need. Take advantage of it -- of the local officers and of State’s website. Carrying that blue passport comes with an enormous range of resources while overseas, many of which the agency details on its website here. The local consulate can give advice and guidance, although actual transportation is almost always through commercial resources. Only in the most extreme circumstances does the government directly intervene to evacuate citizens.