On Saturday, October 29th I was getting ready to join some friends for a Halloween gathering when I checked my phone and saw the terrifying headline that over 50 people were dead from a crowd crush occurring during Halloween festivities in South Korea’s Itaewon neighborhood in Seoul. Unfortunately, the death toll would rise to over 156 people with nearly another 200 people injured.
My heart raced as I easily imagined this being the type of event that some of our study abroad participants would attend. The next 24 hours were filled with anxiety as we waited to hear from the 9 university-affiliated travelers we had in South Korea. Thankfully, all of our travelers were safe and accounted for, but this was a sobering reminder that accompanying the resumption of study abroad is the variety of critical incidents that can impact our travelers.
For the past two-and-a-half years our field has been hyper-focused on mitigating risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic so it’s important to ensure we are still ready to respond to the multitude of other critical events that can occur. The following are some of the more salient reminders that this tragedy brought into center focus.
1. Locating Your Travelers
When an event of this magnitude occurs the first task at hand is to locate all of your travelers and ensure they are safe. Institutions and organizations with travelers going abroad should have a plan for how they will locate their travelers. A critical aspect of this plan is having a database that you can quickly access to know where you have travelers.
This will likely require two things:
a) Having technology that allows you to capture where you have travelers and communicate with them while they are abroad and
b) Having a policy that requires your institution or organization’s travelers to register their affiliated travel.
At my institution, we only recently updated our International Travel Safety policy that now requires faculty and staff to register their university-related travel in a database. Without this policy in place, we would likely not have known that we had a faculty member in Seoul at the time of the incident.
Beyond knowing where you have travelers, though, you also need a way to quickly get in touch with your travelers. While cell phones are ubiquitous, not every student chooses to purchase an international plan. Additionally, some large-scale events could wipe out a region’s cellular infrastructure for a period of time, therefore, any plan should have multiple methods for getting in touch with travelers.
Thankfully, there are a number of technology solutions that can help an institution or organization quickly account for its travelers. These solutions will notify administrators and travelers when a critical incident has occurred and then assist in the accounting of travelers by sending check-in requests and allowing for administrators to see where travelers are if GPS features have been enabled. While this technology is a big help, it’s important that all stakeholders are trained on how to use it before a critical incident occurs. This includes key leadership personnel who might not be regularly interacting with the software, such as Provosts, SIOs, Program Leaders, and Senior Vice Presidents.
2. Who’s On First?
Depending upon the size of your mobility operations, there may be a wide variety of stakeholders who need to be involved when a critical incident like this occurs. At my institution, we are in the process of centralizing international mobility efforts, but there are still pockets of activity that occur in departmental silos. In such a case, it could be very easy for mixed messages to be sent and/or assumptions to be made about who is doing what to respond. For these reasons, it is important to have a documented International Crisis Response Plan that clearly outlines the key decision-makers and actors responsible for coordinating a response to a critical incident. This plan should also outline the steps these individuals should take in different scenario-based incidents that could occur.
In addition to having a plan, these individuals should be regularly trained on the plan, including working through mock scenarios or tabletop drills. After an incident such as this, it can also be effective to convene these individuals to assess what worked well and what didn’t to be better prepared in the future. Each crisis or emergency that occurs is an opportunity to refine the crisis response plan and to learn for future incidents.
3. Know Your Partners
Many institutions rely on relationships with program partners to facilitate education abroad. These partners are critical to the work we do and, when an incident occurs, can be a huge asset in supporting your travelers. However, institutions should be familiar with the protocols, resources, and communication channels of their partners and not wait until a tragedy occurs to learn about them. As one colleague at a Forum on Education Abroad Health, Safety, Security, and Risk Management Institute put it, you don’t want your “first date” with a partner to be during a crisis!
In order to familiarize themselves with their partner’s crisis response protocols, institutions can ask their partners for a copy of their documented plans. At my institution, we ask new partners to complete a health and safety questionnaire so we can ensure they have appropriate measures in place to promote the health, safety, and well-being of
our students and to learn what their emergency response protocol entails. In addition, it is important to have the contact information for the health and safety personnel of your partner readily on hand and to understand how and when updates will be communicated. Some partners were quick to publish updates about the South Korea tragedy on their websites whereas others sent email updates.
4. Ready Your Communication Plan
Communication is perhaps the most important element during a crisis so institutions and organizations should have a communication plan mapped out that outlines who will be responsible for communicating updates to the various stakeholders who are likely to be impacted or involved during a critical incident. The plan should detail who will be responsible for communicating updates to travelers, including details of any distinctions between types of travelers as necessary (ex: who will communicate with students versus faculty/staff).
Additionally, the plan should provide guidance on who will be responsible for communicating with external audiences such as parents and loved ones and the media. The South Korea tragedy was quickly picked up by media outlets so parents who had students in South Korea learned about the event early on. With the prevalence of social media, this will likely always be the case for events of this nature. Consider having a section of your website where individuals can be pointed to for regular updates when details of an emerging incident are quickly coming in over a period of time and ensure that there is an understanding of who is authorized to provide information to outside parties.
The Itaewon Halloween tragedy was a horrible incident and a sobering reminder to our field that we must remain vigilant in our efforts to mitigate risk and develop emergency response protocols that go beyond the scope of the pandemic. While it is exciting to see study abroad rebounding, let’s keep reviewing our policies and protocols with a critical eye and coming together after tragedies like this one to be better prepared for the next one.
On behalf of Gateway International Group, I offer our sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims of the Itaewon Halloween tragedy and to our colleagues at institutions who lost students.
Gateway’s Duty of Care Solutions provides consultative assessments and recommendations and practitioner-focused professional development for institutions’ risk management, crisis response, and global operations strategies.