Safety & Emergency Preparedness Abroad

Introduction Human Resources
Cash Management Legal
Finance (Including Payroll) Risk Management (Safety and Security)


Institutions establishing and maintaining programs abroad should concern themselves above all with the safety of their students and employees. This entails understanding the risks that are unique to each country at a given time, such as potential civil unrest, widespread communicable diseases, or recent or likely natural disasters. The best starting point for understanding these risks is the State Department's travel Web site.  It contains travel warnings, country-specific information, general travel tips, and the ability to register with a smart traveler program.

In addition to familiarizing yourself with specific country risks, each international activity should develop its own emergency preparedness plan based on institutional policies and procedures and the activity's unique set of risks, facilities, employees, and so forth. The emergency preparedness plan should include how to maintain business continuity in the face of a natural disaster or other event that does not require evacuation from the host country (see discussion below about shelter-in-place), as well as an evacuation plan in the event that students and employees must evacuate the area or the country for any reason.  If you regularly work with non-U.S. citizen students or employees, your evacuation plan should take this into consideration. The U.S. government is only obligated to evacuate its citizens and permanent residents. Visa holders are technically the responsibility of their home countries.

The emergency preparedness plan also should include detailed information on maintaining communication between students and staff, both under normal circumstances and in the event of an emergency (e.g., in the absence of cell phones). The plan should further include mandatory steps for training all students and staff on the host country's specific risks, maintaining communication with the program director or designee, and what to do in the event of an emergency.

A response plan for the death of a student or employee should also be in place.

(Note: The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and its antibribery provisions are discussed in the "Purchasing Goods and Services Abroad" section of this Web site. Data-security laws and insurance are discussed in the "Leasing, Purchasing, and Insuring Facilities Abroad" section.

Universities should make emergency medical care and security evacuation services available to employees or students who are traveling abroad. Those eligible may include anyone traveling on university business or for a university-related activity such as:

Personal travel, including vacations or travel home to visit family would not typically be covered.

Emergency health care is not health insurance. Travelers may need to pay for the cost of medical care while abroad and arrange for reimbursement. Travelers should familiarize themselves with their insurance provider's policies on overseas coverage. In evaluating health insurance coverage, institutions should also think about mental health care as well as coverage for pre-existing conditions. They should review their plans carefully to see if they cover illness or injury due to alcohol consumption.

Students and employees should take the following precautions prior to departing from their home country:

  1. Carry a travel and safety card with emergency contact information.
  2. Inform central safety or the administrative office of travel itinerary and contact information.
  3. Carefully review current health, safety, and security advisories for travel destination(s).
  4. Become familiar with health insurance provider's policies on overseas coverage and payment requirements. (Information should be made available by the university human resources or benefits department.)

If there is an emergency while traveling abroad, employees and students traveling on university business should:

  1. Contact emergency assistance arranged by the university.
  2. Pay for medical expenses and collect receipts for reimbursement from a health insurance provider. If the individual is unable to pay, the university emergency medical vendor can often pay for medical care, with the university expecting reimbursement from the health care provider.
  3. Be prepared to shelter-in-place in certain emergency situations (this information should also be shared with host families). This may include such things as:
    1. Stockpiling 3-5 days' supply of food, water.
    2. Store first aid kit.
    3. Close and lock all windows and exterior doors, as well as window shades, blinds, or curtains if danger of explosion.
    4. Turn off all electrical systems.
    5. Close the fireplace damper.
    6. Go to an interior room without windows that is above ground level. In the case of a chemical threat, an above-ground location is preferable because some chemicals are heavier than air and may seep into basements even if the windows are closed.
    7. Ideally have a hard-wired telephone in the room. Call emergency contacts and have the phone available if you need to report a life-threatening condition.  Cellular telephone equipment may not work during an emergency.
    8. Use duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal all cracks around the door and any vents into the room.
    9. Listen to the radio or television until conditions are safe.  Local officials may call for evacuation in specific areas at greatest risk in the area.

Emergency assistance arranged by a university should include the following:

Security assistance services arranged by a university:

Travel assistance services arranged by the university:

Online information:

Ground transportation is the leading cause of injuries and death for travelers abroad. Students and employees should ensure that transportation companies to transport students are reputable and experienced in the areas being visited. Background checks may be recommended in some situations. Crime may also be an issue on public transportation, meaning foreigners to that country are commonly targeted by criminals in certain countries and regions.

Only taxis that can be identified by official markings should be used. Do not take an unmarked cab.

Many popular routes abroad have experienced robberies of passengers on trains, and these occur most often on overnight trains when passengers may be asleep. Many public buses and stations experience the same issues with crime. Check the U.S. State Department Web site for information about crime that may be more prevalent in the areas of travel.