Are You Ready?

NOTE: For a printable copy of this article, click here.

In the light of my experiences and observations over the last several years in Aviation Missions, Inc., I have decided to publish articles intended to help missionaries, both young and old, new or veteran.

Are you ready?

That is a very interesting and familiar question; one which many of us may have used in our witnessing. But this article is not about your personal relationship with the Lord and your final home in eternity. Rather, it concerns emergency preparedness and crisis management. The time to think about what to do is not after things go bad and are out of our control. People may be caught off guard very quickly and may find themselves in life threatening or potentially harmful situations.

Peter exhorts us in his first epistle, chapter 5 and verse 8 to “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” The word ‘vigilant’ used here is from a Greek word meaning: to watch; give strict attention to, be cautious; to take heed lest through remission and indolence some destructive calamity suddenly overtake you. The primary application in this passage concerns spiritual warfare. The principle of vigilance, however, is necessary in order to remain in the spiritual fight and not be taken out by some incident or situation that has the same result – another missionary off the field and out of the battle. Because this is happening, I thought it useful to publish this article.

Perhaps the most important factor affecting the outcome of a life threatening or harmful incident encountered by a missionary family or team, and the impact of that outcome on world missions, is their mindset prior to the incident occurring. The way the human brain is wired makes it very difficult for a person to transition from going about their daily activities, “tuned out” so to speak, mostly unaware of what is going on around them or developing before them to a state of alertness and readiness, assessing the situation and taking appropriate actions. Normally, in situations that have degenerated rapidly to a crisis (or in some situations, have been degenerating for hours or days), people will freeze, go into shock and be unable to properly respond to the situation confronting them. In many cases, this panic induced condition may result in a paralysis of mind and body which may be extremely dangerous. During this condition, survival is normally by Divine Providence. There is a difference between relying on God’s sovereignty and imposing on God’s sovereignty.

Another very dangerous and widespread factor in this mindset is that of denial. You must recognize that there is the possibility of a natural disaster occurring, the possibility of a medical emergency happening, the possibility of manmade crises being imposed on people, and the fact that there are some really evil people who intend to do harm to innocent people. This means that your lifestyle should include circumspection and a practice of situational awareness. Keeping up on the latest weather forecast, staying current on political developments, and a general awareness of potential threats to life and limb are among the things that should be a part of everyday life. These actions require very little time but can potentially pay large dividends. By placing a proper priority on situational awareness and understanding the possibility of being either a target or victim, you can be mentally prepared to foresee the danger, take appropriate action and manage the crisis as it develops. The earlier that you recognize the threat the more time to implement your plans to escape or mitigate the threat.

Time is of the essence.

When the residents of a Colorado community were told that they had 20 minutes to evacuate their homes in light of the approaching wildfire was not the time to figure out what to take with them, where to go or how to get there. (For a suggested checklist of items to include in a Go Bag see the article on that subject on the AMI web site.)

When the secretary answers the phone in the office and the voice on the other end of the line says, “We have kidnapped one of your missionaries and want $1 million” is not the time to discuss what your reaction and plan is in that situation. What the secretary says can be the difference between life and death. The phone did ring in a certain church office and the caller said very similar words. The secretary answered by saying, “We do not negotiate with terrorists or kidnappers.” She heard two shots as the missionaries were shot and killed. The kidnappers went looking for more missionaries. Planning ahead and practicing the plan are crucial to taking care of our missionaries.

The criticality of time and urgency is seen clearly in medical emergencies. When the phone rings and the caller asks for help because a 12 year old missionary boy in Central America has 48 hours to live because of a growth around his heart is not the time to figure out what to do. A missionary family in Mongolia was told that their 8 year old daughter would die in 72 hours if she did not get back to the States for treatment. Time is of the essence. Pre-planning is crucial.

An important part of the proper mindset is that inner strength and discipline that is built in through training and exercise that rests upon the sovereignty of God and the tenacity placed in the human spirit combined with the durability of the human body. Should a crisis or disaster overtake someone and cause not only property damage but physical injury or death, it is very important to remain focused and take immediate and appropriate action to mitigate and survive the incident.

If a missionary is calling their home church or mission board when the rebel forces are in the front yard; trying to call their pastor back in the USA while the tsunami is overwhelming them; or, if the pastor of the sending church waits to get an emergency call from one of their mission families on the foreign field before thinking about what to do – it is too late. If the church has waited until the emergency happens before trying to build a contacts list, there will be no one to call and phone numbers will be outdated.

Contingency plans, or crisis management plans, must be prepared early before the incidents, and must have specificity and flexibility. The plan must take into account and provide for on-the-ground realities such as: safety, food and water, transportation/evacuation, communications.

Some of the key questions and items that should be considered and included in all planning are:

  • Who is the key decision maker?
  • Who has that responsibility in their absence?
  • Should some decisions be relegated to the field?
  • Which ones?
  • Why?
  • Who is directly responsible back home for such functions as:
  • Identifying who will fulfill these tasks and keeping contact information up to date with current phone numbers is essential.

    Although technology provides us with tremendous time saving tools, an over reliance on technology can be disastrous to the desirable outcome of a contingency plan. Technology may not be available during a crisis or disaster for a variety of reasons. Alternative and “low tech” solutions and means must be incorporated into the plans. They may take longer, but they will probably still work as they have for hundreds of years. Over-reliance on one means of communication may severely hinder successful execution of a plan. Communication redundancies must be built into every plan. Communications infrastructure is normally one of the first things to fail or be deliberately shut down for a variety of reasons. Transportation hubs may be knocked out or incapable of providing the necessary transportation to handle the demand. Alternative means of transport and routes must be incorporated into the plans.

    Current and accurate information is vital in every operation. Sources must be reliable; extraneous data must be ignored or set aside for later consideration; a proper analysis of the information must be conducted; missing key information must be identified and procured; only necessary and appropriate information must be disseminated; information must be centralized with the decision makers.

    Here are some bullet points about implementation of a plan:

  • The crisis management team (key decision makers and staff) must be identified and established as early as possible before a crisis arises.
  • Accurate information must be kept flowing to the appropriate people.
  • Focus may shift from a strategic level to a specific task and back again.
  • Be prepared for a lengthy crisis.
  • Expect the unexpected and maintain flexibility to meet the new situations as they arise.
  • Do not be surprised if everything does not go as planned.
  • Build and use strong, dependable networks.
  • Implementation of the plan may be in stages as people are moved to safe locations before being evacuated or resettled for a longer time.
  • The plan must include recovery of the missionary after the incident is over.
  • (For further information on how this should be done, see “Serving as Senders Today” by Neal Pirolo.)

    Government planning is no substitute for personal planning. Personal contingency plans are vital for missionaries serving in a foreign country. In fact, contingency planning is vital on the part of every pastor and church – not only for support of foreign missionaries; but, to better serve the church members and minister to their communities in times of crisis. Tornados, wild fires, earthquakes, severe winter storms can be the cause of a crisis situation.

    As mentioned earlier, contingency plans are essential for things like medical emergencies, natural disasters, mob violence during civil disturbances, terrorism and war. These situations may develop slowly or may occur rather suddenly. Normally, there will be no time to plan; only time to implement a plan already in place.

    A primary consideration in executing any evacuation plan, to go or stay, is the long term impact on the vision and mission goal for that field. During the frequent civil wars and political disturbances in the Ivory Coast, the long term goal for reaching that country with the Gospel was usually better served by leaving during the strife, remaining safe, and returning to minister later. This has happened with some degree of regularity. One pastor told his missionaries to stay, even when there was an actual and imminent threat to the safety of the family. This may be bravado, but it is not wise mission planning. Dead missionaries do not plant churches. Facing loss of support from churches contacted by his pastor, and despite being called a coward, a missionary brought his family out of danger so they could return later and continue the mission. Consideration must be given to the safety of the missionary and the long term vision for a mission field.

    The potential for evacuation is not confined to third world or developing countries. Medical evacuation may be necessary from even from the most modern of countries. Natural disasters and terrorism may necessitate implementation of evacuation/extraction plans worldwide. The potential for evacuation/extraction is nearly universal. Every missionary family and sending church must develop personal and individual plans before a crisis erupts.

    Over reliance on government planning should be avoided. Quite often, it takes the bureaucracy too long to either recognize the need or to implement the plan. Logistics may not be readily available to the local government representatives. Newly assigned embassy personnel may not be familiar with the plans or the local networks necessary to support an evacuation. Missionaries should take advantage of any evacuation/extraction procedures offered by the government that has a reasonable chance of success, but they should not overly rely on those plans and personnel.

    An evacuation/extraction plan involves more than showing up at the airport or dock to catch the next flight or ship leaving. It is not uncommon to wait at the airport or seaport for a day or more waiting for governments to figure out what they are going to do, who they are going to evacuate, in what order personnel will get passage for departure, and then the government must make arrangements for safe travel with the host country or rebel forces who may have taken over transportation hubs.

    Missionaries will be expected to pay for any services arranged for them, including transportation out of the country. Baggage allowance may only be one small carryon bag. Food and water may often be the responsibility of the missionary.

    Evacuation plans, to be more effective and have a better likelihood of success, usually require departure before the situation deteriorates and becomes too critical. Therefore, a very important part of any plan is to establish trigger points or criteria that, if met, will put the plan into action. If the plan is to leave, waiting until the last minute is not advisable. Plans should also include criteria for sheltering in place to ride out a crisis. This may be the choice after a thorough analysis of the situation.

    The means of evacuation and departure should be arranged in advance to the extent possible. Evacuation/exfiltration routes should be planned out. Neither of these should be inflexible. Backup plans for means and mode of travel and routes should be in place. Plans should include several means of transport and several diverse exfiltration routes. The go-bag contents should take these into account. Overland exfiltration may be the only safe way out. Thus, simple things like a map and compass should be in the bag.

    Every member of the family should understand their family evacuation plan and know what to do in the different situations. Older children may be assigned to help with younger children, for example. Everyone should know where their final destination is and the location of any rally points or safe houses en route. Three very important functions in any plan are communication, location, and situation.

    Communications systems are vulnerable and frequently unavailable during a crisis. Knowing that every member of your family and/or team knows the plan, and is following the plan, reduces stress induced by lack of communication. This lack of stress will help each member to focus on their responsibility in the plan and to accomplish their tasks. Every plan must incorporate alternative means and methods of communicating, not only in-country, but also back to the US.

    Knowing where you are and communicating with other family or team members is not only for during a crisis. Trips to remote areas out of communications coverage is a part of mission life. While flying in certain environments, flight following and reporting procedures are in place to insure safety and assist in search and rescue should that be needed. This principle should be carried over into remote mission travel. While traveling remotely, periodic check-in with family or team members relieves the stress associated with not knowing. Tracking would provide location information for search and rescue in case of lost contact and failure to check in.

    A recent incident illustrates the need for this capability. A mission team was two days drive through barren country from home. A team member came down with a severe illness that required medical attention within 72 hours or he would die. Communication was very spotty and intermittent. The status of the sick team member was difficult to ascertain by the family or others back home. The location of the team as they drove back to base was impossible to determine. During the trip, there was no communication. By the time the sick team member was properly diagnosed and transported to a facility that could possibly treat him, he died.

    The solution I am recommending for this scenario, and those like it, is a personal locator beacon. In fact, I highly recommend that every family (and in some cases, each family member) serving on the foreign field or traveling to the foreign field on short term mission trips get a personal locator beacon (PLB). These little devices continue to save lives around the world. If you want to be found when a serious incident or crisis occurs, if you want to communicate with your loved ones and/or team members to keep them informed, and if you want a two way communications capability (satellite based) while remote, then you need to get a PLB. Aviation Missions, Inc. recommends the DeLorme InReach SE. This device can be paired with a smart phone through Bluetooth for messaging and map navigation. Most importantly, the PLB will display your location to an operations center with an accuracy of a few meters for evacuation/extraction purposes. A future article will address further the capabilities and uses for the PLB and some recommended subscription plans for expatriate missionaries.

    Any contingency plan is better than no plan. But a plan that has been tested in real world local conditions is far better than a plan that is only on paper and shelved. Practice your plan to shake out the problems and vulnerable areas. Practice also will help familiarize the family/team with the plan and their individual responsibilities and tasks. It is far better to answer the questions in training than during execution in times of crisis.

    Periodically check the plan to update information and inspect the go-bag contents for completeness and currency. Little things like how old your batteries are matters. Create your plan ahead of time because many people simply will not know what to do when confronted by an emergency. Having a plan in advance with which everyone is familiar will help people to know what to do, when to do it, and where to go. Thus, we will be better able to preserve our missionary strength as we undertake the Great Commission.

    NOTE: For a printable copy of this article, click here.