In Emergencies, Companies Are Turning to Employee-Tracking Services

The recent terrorist attack in Paris put Norm Sheehan, a safety director for an international development company, on high alert.

Employees of his company, Chemonics International, were headed to West Africa through Charles de Gaulle Airport, and he had to find them. So his emergency plan — long in preparation, regularly updated and only sometimes used — went into effect.

Norman Sheehan, safety director at Chemonics International, used an online tracking tool to help locate employees during the recent terrorist attack in Paris. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

It took more than just a call on their cellphones to help locate the workers during the emergency. Rather, he relied on an online tracking tool, to identify travellers’ plans and their contact information, developed by International SOS, one of a growing number of companies offering such services.

In the case of Chemonics, Mr. Sheehan had little margin for error. There was, he said, “a siege not far from the airport that could have affected runway operations. If it had persisted, we would have advised staff to use different routes.”

Demand for employee-tracking services is increasing, said Mr. Sheehan, a safety and security professional for more than 30 years. “Everyone wants to know where their staff is at all times, if possible,” he said.

The need is driven, for the most part, by so-called duty of care laws, which obligate employers to know their workers’ whereabouts and take measures to ensure their safety.

The result is that businesses of all sizes are purchasing services that make use of GPS, geotracking and other technologies to track their employees from an ever-growing number of suppliers.

International SOS is among the oldest and most established, with clients that have included China National Petroleum. The field also includes iJET, which has worked with Cummins and McDonald’s, and the Anvil Group, a London-based firm whose clients include the BBC and Sky, the European broadcasting company.

A host of new firms are also chasing the business, including Concur, the business travel and expense management subsidiary of SAP; its Concur Messaging service is used by Microsoft, the American International Group and Lego.

BCD Travel, a travel management company, has created a tool that uses itinerary information, an interactive map and text messaging to help clients track their travellers. And American Express Global Business Travel has developed a tool that helps employers track their employees’ corporate credit card activity, potentially useful if smartphone service is lost.

Gone are the days when firms used hard-paper itineraries to keep track of travellers; now GPS technology allows employers to locate employees in circumstances like the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Sydney.

If an emergency occurs, the employer can push out alerts; apps also allow employees to request help, via a virtual panic button on their smartphone.

International SOS even offers clients a GPS-equipped box with a button that can be activated in high-risk situations when there is no Internet or cellphone service.

Travel-tracking tools generally allow companies to continuously locate their employees, but, depending on the service, employees can turn off the tracking.

Another service provided by International SOS, iJET and others to clients is evacuation planning and execution for employees travelling to or based in dangerous locations.

During the Arab Spring in early 2011, as unrest escalated in Libya, International SOS and its partner, Control Risks, a global risk consulting company, established a crisis management team in London, which quickly identified with its travel-tracking tool 760 employees of over 40 corporate clients in Tripoli, Benghazi and the oil fields in south Libya.

With airspace in Benghazi shut down and chaos reigning at the Tripoli airport, the team advised some trapped workers to go to the airport only when it was safe and a flight was likely to depart; it told personnel in remote sites to remain there until evacuation plans were completed.

Geofencing — the ability to monitor the whereabouts of travellers within a tightly defined location — is another relatively new service enabled by GPS. The Anvil Group said this capability was desirable to companies with employees deployed to combat zones and other remote places; it can tell employers if an employee has gone outside a defined area and dispatch help.

But no service is helpful if travellers are not trained to use it, said Ray O’Hara, former head of the security professionals’ trade association, ASIS International, and executive vice president of AS Solution, a security services company in Palm Desert, Calif.

“The general public has to play a role in this,” he said. “They have to understand how the service works, when the device needs to be charged, if it needs to be charged. Their employer has to put a process in place.”

The Anvil Group, for one, has experienced renewed interest in its services in the wake of the Paris terrorist attack, said Cal Pratt, a managing director.

Johnny Thorsen, head of Concur Messaging, said the attack could become a tipping point in how closely companies monitor their employees’ whereabouts.

“If something can happen anywhere, then perhaps it will be O.K. if your company knows where you are every third hour until you’re home,” he said.

Originally published in the New York Times


International SOS, the world’s leading medical and security services company, and Vismo, a leading global service provider of mobile communications, announced a partnership that delivers an enhanced solution for monitoring, tracking, and assisting travellers to high risk and remote locations. Read more