Evacuation Decision Making

How to decide when it’s time to get out of a location when you’re faced with escalating levels of risk and threat.

First published by Grant Rayner on 18 Apr 2020

9 min read

Security Evacuations

In the past few articles in this series, I’ve focused on managing risk at street level. I’ve looked at situational awareness, building good judgement, maintaining a low profile, and adapting to challenging environments.

I’m going to change things up a bit in this article and focus on what you need to do once the level of risk starts ratcheting up to unacceptable levels and you need to get your people out. This will be a critical time, and your safety and the safety of your team may be hanging in the balance. There is very little tolerance for mistakes and misjudgements.

Leaving the mechanics of how you will actually plan and execute the evacuation aside for a moment, you’ll still be faced with a key decision:

When is the right time to get you and your team out of the country?

In this article I’ll explain how you can navigate this type of situation so that you’re able to make effective decisions at the right times. To do this, I’ll introduce you to some of the decision-making frameworks that I use, and explain how you can use them in practice.

I specialise in assisting individuals and organisations to operate effectively in complex and higher-risk environments. Part of this is helping people get out of countries when their safety and security is under threat.

Evacuations in context

The concept of security evacuations may be hard to grasp if you haven’t come across them before. Security evacuations are conducted to remove people from situations where there are unacceptable levels of risk. To paint picture of the types of situations you may find yourself in when you might need to think about evacuating, here’s a few scenarios:

  • There has just been a series of terrorist attacks against major hotels in the city you are operating in. Over 200 people have been killed. Even though your accommodation and workplace havn’t been directly impacted, there’s a significant amount of concern about follow on attacks. Many of your team regularly hold meetings and have meals at these hotels, so they’re quite shaken up.
  • You’re leading an expedition in a remote location. Just before midday, there’s a massive earthquake. You and your team walk to a nearby village to find it’s been completely destroyed by a landslide. Dozens of villagers have been killed or injured, and hundreds more may be missing. The roads out of the area are blocked, preventing you and your team from walking out of the area. Many of your team are showing signs of extreme psychological trauma, made worse by the continual aftershocks.
  • One of your local managers steps into your office. He informs you that a local warlord has put a price on your head, because he blames you for a failed business deal. You immediately think of your family, who are currently at your residence, without any security protection, and highly vulnerable.
  • A neighbouring country has just launched airstrikes against the city where you and your team are currently working. There have already been dozens of airstrikes. The airport runways have been damaged, and civil airlines have stopped flying in. You’ve heard that airstrikes are also targeting roads and bridges, and that there have been armed clashes in the streets. You know it’s time to leave.

Each of these scenarios is quite different, but what they have in common is the fact that people’s lives and psychological well-being are under threat. The only way to reduce that threat is to get out of the country to somewhere safe.

That’s when it’s time to conduct an evacuation.

Evacuation decisions are hard

Decision-making during crisis situations is difficult. You will rarely have access to reliable information, and the situation will be continually evolving.

When we focus specifically on evacuations, it will often seem as though there’s no “right time” to make the call to leave. Not only will be you be dealing with an unclear and rapidly evolving situation, but you’ll be dealing with stress and emotional turmoil as you and your team members manage your own personal security.

You’ll be faced with a conundrum. If you leave too early, people may lose trust in your judgement. You’ll be seen as being too cautious, fleeing at the first sign of trouble. But if you leave the decision until too late, you may not be able to leave at all. This could result in you and your team being placed at considerable risk.

Boiling frogs

I’m sure you’ve heard of the boiling frog fable. According to legend and lore, if you place a frog into boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But if you place a frog into warm water, then slowly bring the water to a boil, the frog will not be able to perceive the danger and will be boiled to death. (Ok, many of you should know that isn’t entirely true, and that frogs, thankfully, will just jump out. But it’s a well known story and we all know what it means in practice. Also, please don’t do this at home).

Frog fables aside, this is pretty much the exact situation you’ll face in an escalating risk scenario — the level of risk will be increasing bit by bit until suddenly the roads to the airport are cut off, the border checkpoints close, or flights are cancelled. Then you’re stuck. Boiled alive.

If you’re operating in a higher-risk location, you’ll need a way to objectively measure the escalation in risk, while at the same time being able to relate that to what it means for the various pillars of your evacuation plan.

To make the process of deciding when to evacuate a little easier, we’ve adopted several frameworks to support our decision-making processes. I’ll inroduce three of these below.

The evacuation window

The first framework we use is the “evacuation window”. This is the figurative window of time in which you can successfully conduct an evacuation.

The window opens when it’s clear an evacuation is necessary, and all the infrastructure and resources necessary to support the evacuation are available. The evacuation window closes once the infrastructure and resources necessary to successfully evacuate are no longer available.

Evacuations are a delicate flower. Sometime just the loss of one key piece can cause the evacuation window to close and the entire plan to fail. For air evacuations, airspace closures in the lead up to military conflict are a key thing to watch for. Once the airspace closes, air evacuation operations will no longer be viable, reducing your evacuation options considerably.

Each type of evacuation option will have different windows. The evacuation window for an air evacuation may close when the airspace closes, while the window for a vehicle evacuation may still be open. This is the situation I faced when executing an evacuation out of Lebanon during the 2006 Lebanon War. After the airspace was closed, and while the maritime blockade was still in place, we conducted a low profile evacuation of a small group of foreigners out of Beirut by road to Damascus.

There’s a Goldilocks zone in an evacuation window where conditions are “just right” to conduct an evacuation. You’ll need to intuit where this point is and make sure you and your team are ready to leave before the window slams shut. A useful framework to find this point is decision triggers.

Decision Triggers

Decision triggers are used in a number of different fields to operationalise decision-making. For evacuations, decision triggers are an excellent tool to avoid the boiling frog dilemma — they enable you to objectively measure increases in risk over time, and respond at key points.

When you first start operating in a higher-risk environment, you should go through a process of identifying and analysing the key risks, then start evaluating how those risks may escalate in different scenarios. Depending on where you’re operating, you may consider multiple scenarios, for example civil unrest, armed conflict, and natural disaster.

Each scenario will have its own escalation path. This should be documented in terms of observable events — actions you can see in the street, or read in the news. For civil unrest, for example, the escalation path could see protests getting larger and more violent over time.

Once you’ve identified the escalation path for each scenario, you should then define the point in each scenario at which risk becomes unacceptable. By this stage, you don’t want to be in the country. To operationalise this, you’ll need to backtrack to the events leading up to that point to determine when you would initiate your evacuation.

At a basic level, you’re looking for two key points: the point when you’ll pack your things and get ready to go, and the point when you actually go.

It’s important to document your scenarios and decision triggers early, when there’s not much going on. It’s much better to set these up when you’re clear eyed and in an objective frame of mind than when you’re pumped with adrenaline and under pressure.

One of the challenges you’ll face with defining decision triggers is that risk tends to oscillate, often imperceptibly. A protest may start today, escalate tomorrow, and then nothing may happen for a week. Then the following week there’s another protest, but this time the police open fire killing a protestor. Then it might die down again. Or it might not. It’s difficult to know. As you look at this situation, you might delay evacuating in hope that the situation will improve.

Conceptually, it helps to think of the key events along escalation paths as scale lines on a thermometer. The level of risk is the mercury that rises and falls. When the mercury hits certain levels, these are your decision triggers — it’s time to swing into action.

Situations also tend to normalise over time. There may be an event that you thought would be serious a few months ago, but by the time you actually get to that point it’s not as bad as you thought it would be. People can adapt to increasing levels of risk quite easily, so long at they’re not directly impacted. When you prepare your evacuation plan, decision triggers will be what drives the key stages of your preparation and readiness. For example, in response to certain triggers you may check on the availability of vehicles, confirm a route, or move your team from their residences into an assembly point or safe house.

You can also use decision triggers to activate plans when the evacuation window is about to shut, by linking them to the availability of infrastructure and resources. For example, if you hear that airspace may be closing in the next 48 hours, that may be the trigger to initiate an emergency evacuation by air.

We include exercises to develop decision triggers in our evacuation planning workshops. It’s an interesting process to go through, and something that’s adaptable to a range of other non-evacuation contexts.

Go / No Go Criteria

Another decision-making framework you can adapt for evacuation decision-making is go / no go criteria. This approach involves applying a pass/fail test to specific binary conditions. The concept is used in military planning, as well as in the fields of engineering and psychology.

When you’re planning an evacuation, and trying to work out which evacuation options are workable and which aren’t, go / no go criteria are a simple and efficient tool. Here’s a few examples of the types of binary conditions that fit this approach perfectly:

  • Airspace is open or closed.
  • The primary route to the airport is secure or not secure.
  • A border crossing is open or closed.

The way I use go / no go criteria in practice is to set up a “traffic light” system for each evacuation option. If the evacuation option is green across the board, that evacuation option is viable. If just one criteria is red, then I’ll either need to look at an alternative for that specific criteria, or I’ll need to abandon that evacuation option entirely and focus on a different one.

Go / no go criteria will also dictate when your evacuation window closes. Once you have a “no go” for either airport operations or airspace access, then the evacuation window for an air evacuation has effectively closed.

Limiting the downside

Even with these decision-making frameworks in place, you may still struggle to get your timings right. To mitigate the impact of imperfect decisions, you can use a number of different techniques.

The most effective of these is to progressively draw down your numbers. You’ll see embassies do this when they send families and non-essential staff home during periods of heightened risk. Many corporations use a similar approach.

Drawing down allows you to progressively get small groups of people out on commercial flights as the situation escalates, leaving you with a smaller group in place to continue “essential” operations. Applying the evacuation window framework to this approach, you may evacuate one group early in the window, another halfway, while keeping one group on the ground for continuity. If the evacuation window suddenly closes, at least you’ve managed to get the majority of your people out safely.

This is still not ideal, but it’s better than if you still had everyone on the ground. You’ve managed to reduce your risk exposure, and you now have a smaller group of people to look after. If you do get another opportunity to evacuate, you’ll have more options available to you with a smaller group.

Plan to fail

Even with these frameworks in place, you can still miss your evacuation window due to events completely outside of your control. It’s important that you have back up plans in place to ensure that your team is safe and secure if they can’t evacuate. This should include plans to accommodate your team in a secure location that’s out of harm’s way, supply them with food and water, and ensure reliable and secure communications. At the same time, you should continue to monitor the situation closely and be at a high level of operational readiness so you’re able to get your team out if a new evacuation window opens.

Challenges to decision-making

Evacuations often occur in the midst of highly fluid and complex situations. That said, in my experience reading the situation isn’t always the hardest part, particularly if I’m using the frameworks outlined above.

What can make evacuation decision-making even more difficult is organisational dynamics. For every person panicking and telling you it’s time to leave, you’ll have another person arguing that the situation isn’t that bad and you can wait a bit longer. Invariably, you’ll also have people outside the country with their own views, based on the limited information they have at their disposal.

It will be only a matter of time before you start questioning your own judgement and second guessing yourself. That may result in poor decisions that could place people at risk.

This is why it’s important to integrate all three of these frameworks into your evacuation planning and decision-making from the start. This will make you less reliant on people’s opinions, and more reliant on agreed criteria and conditions.

These frameworks don’t just make it easier to make decisions — they also make it easier to communicate these decisions to your evacuees and senior management. As you reach a decision trigger, you can explain what this means in relation to your preparation. If no go criteria are met for your air evacuation option, you can show this visually using your traffic light system, and explain why it’s now time to focus on the vehicle evacuation option. You can also use the evacuation window as a tool to explain the imperative to evacuate now, before the window closes. People will understand this if it’s laid out logically.

Wrap Up

Evacuation operations can be complex and high-risk endeavours. It’s hard to get your timings right and, if you’re not careful, you’ll end up stuck where you are. This could seriously impact the safety of you and your team.

Frameworks like the evacuation window, decision triggers, and go / no go criteria can be used in combination to help you to get your timings right and get your team out safely and without incident.

Remember those examples at the start? They are all actual events.

The first example relates to the Easter Day terrorist attacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 2019. Many expatriates left the country after the attacks. I was on the ground immediately afterwards to assess the situation and support clients, and there were multiple rumours of the potential for follow on attacks.

The second example was the Nepal earthquakes in 2015, where hundreds of foreigners were stranded in remote areas across the country. I flew into the country on one of the first available flights, and worked with a diplomatic mission in Kathmandu to evacuate citizens by helicopter and vehicle from some of the most remote and hard-hit parts of the country. Over the many days we conducted evacuations, evacuation windows opened and closed based on aircraft availability, road conditions, and weather.

The third example took place in the Solomon Islands. We were notified of a serious and credible threat to an expatriate executive, developed an emergency evacuation plan, and extracted the executive and their family at first light the following morning. The decision-making trigger in this case was the threat.

The last example was in Beirut in 2006, during the relatively short but intense war with Israel. We extracted a small group of expatriates from Beirut and evacuated them by vehicle to Damascus, in Syria. I retraced the route of this evacuation earlier this year, driving from Beirut to Damascus.

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