Surviving Worst-Case Scenarios

Planning for unexpected events on short-term missions here and abroad

There’s plenty to excite your imagination when you’re planning a short-term missions trip: The ministry of your work in the field, the spiritual growth of your group, the opportunity to support a missionary, and to share the love of Christ with people around the world. And there are many details to nail down, including flights, transportation, and accommodations, among others.

But months of planning cannot prevent the unexpected from interrupting even the most meticulously planned itinerary. It only takes a moment—a turned back, a missed stop sign, even just being in the wrong place at the wrong time—and suddenly you find yourself in a dreaded “worst-case scenario” you didn’t think would ever happen to you. But by preparing for these unlikely situations before you leave, you can replace panic with a carefully crafted immediate response plan that makes the most of available resources.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for any given problem. Before you leave, be sure to research the destination, especially when the trip takes you across borders. Good resources include the host country’s U.S. consulate and U.S. embassy.

“Definitely gather all the information—there’s a lot of information available through the State Department,” advises Eric Spacek, senior risk manager at GuideOne Insurance. “Reach out to the missionaries in the field who are aware of the community and the surroundings and the lay of the land there—gather information from them as well. Then sit down before you go to create a plan on what to do in the event of an illness, or accident, or any of these situations.”

Preparedness is all about asking the right questions, both before you leave and in the field when the situation occurs. The following “worst-case scenarios” can help guide your thinking on what questions to ask now so you can act calmly and swiftly should one happen.

Worst-Case Scenario #1: Something is stolen.

You turn your back for one minute, and it’s gone: your laptop, your camera, your sound equipment—even a round-the-clock guarding of your most valuable possessions cannot guarantee that you won’t become a victim of theft. As soon as you notice something is missing:

  • Alert your group and anyone else you may be working with;
  • Search your possessions, quarters, property, vehicles, and anywhere else you may have visited to be sure it wasn’t accidentally left behind;
  • Check with the host family if you are staying with one, says Monnie Brewer, president of the National Association of Missions Pastors. “Don’t be surprised if your hosts dig through your suitcase or take things out of your room, backpack, or purse. If you stay at their home, everything you have is theirs, because everything they have is yours, too.”;
  • When you are sure that the item has been stolen, report the theft. “Touch base with the missionary in the field about what to do,” Spacek says. “The State Department would recommend that you first make a report with local authorities. They can also offer some sort of assistance. They offer themselves as a resource for American citizens who are victims of crimes in a foreign country.”

Personal possessions are generally covered by homeowners insurance, and the team member should contact their carrier to report the theft. However, if you are traveling abroad with valuable items that belong to the church, such as sound equipment, or that belong to someone else, such as gifts destined for an orphanage, then you may want to pursue an inland marine policy, which releases the transporter from responsibility for the moving property.

“If we currently have a policy with a church, it’s very easy to write that endorsement off the church’s existing policy,” says Mike Ummel, Passport to Ministry manager at Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company. Before you leave, identify any items you want covered and contact your insurance company with the value of the items, as well as when and where you will be traveling.

The best way to prepare for theft, of course, is to prevent it from happening. “The first question to ask yourself is, ‘Do you really need that stuff?'” says John Potts, executive vice president of YouthWorks, which organizes short-term missions trips for youth groups. Make sure your group members know that anything they bring may be stolen, and encourage them to bring only what they absolutely need.

Some valuable items, however, are essential, including travel documents. Always carry multiple copies of important forms and identification. “If your passport is stolen, you can take your documents to the nearest U.S. embassy and get your new passport sooner. If anyone asks to hold your passport, give them a copy; never give them the original,” Brewer says.

Before you leave, coach your group in some basic precautionary methods:

  • Do not flash money or expensive objects, especially in public places;
  • Carry all cash, important documents, and smaller expensive equipment on your body (a money belt worn underneath clothes works well);
  • As much as possible, avoid leaving luggage, electronics, and expensive equipment unattended in vehicles, even when vehicles are locked;
  • Try to keep your expensive belongings within view at all times;
  • Be aware of your surroundings—thieves and pickpockets may create diversions to distract attention.

Worst-Case Scenario #2: A vehicle crashes.

Auto insurance for any vehicle, including rentals, is essential for a trip. If you are in the United States, make certain your church or organization has insurance for the vehicle and that all drivers are covered.

In the case of an accident, seek medical attention for any injured parties first. Before you leave on a trip, identify who you will contact for medical assistance if there is an accident.

“We would recommend that, much like with your vehicle here in the States, you carry around an accident pack that contains all the information (authorities) might need,” Spacek says. After the accident occurs, be sure to collect witness statements, witness names, and that type of information. These items will help file an insurance claim back in the States.

For international travel, research the laws regarding minimum coverage for each country visited because those laws vary. Even if you borrow a car from a local missionary or national, make sure you are covered to drive it. Local insurance on the vehicle itself should be sufficient, but many countries have very low medical limits and liability for any third parties that may be involved. Before you leave, ask your travel insurance provider about additional liability insurance, which is called “auto contingent liability,” to protect the insured against any medical and legal costs incurred by an involved third party.

Worst-Case Scenario #3: Someone gets sick or hurt.

First things first: in the case of an emergency, seek medical attention right away. Go to the hospital, get help, and then worry about insurance.

But before you even leave, it’s essential to identify the best hospitals in the areas you plan to travel, using help from local missionaries and your insurance company. If you’re not connected to a local missionary, “the State Department offers a list of physicians and hospitals in each of those countries. They don’t recommend any particular facility, but they provide a listing,” Spacek says.

Also, familiarize yourself with the country’s medical system, which may include some key differences from what you’re used to. “In Canada, for example,” Potts says, “when you go to the ER, they’re going to ask for a credit card. They will not take your insurance, they’re not going to bill you, they will refuse service to you until payment is rendered.”

If you are in the U.S., follow up with the individual’s medical insurance. Before leaving, trip participants should verify that their provider offers adequate coverage. “Talk about it a lot ahead of time,” Brewer says. “Many people have medical coverage that may have hospitals in various parts of the world, especially in parts of Asia and Europe.”

Be sure to ask plenty of questions about participants’ medical coverage before you leave. “Being out-of-network is one thing, but being out of the country is another,” Ummel says. “I called my major medical carrier when I was going to Brazil and they said I was covered. But when I started asking deeper questions, ‘covered’ meant the co-pay went from 20/80 to 50/50. For the price you’d pay for supplemental travel insurance, you’d better take it. They typically range from $20 per trip, to $70, depending on which policy you get. But when you add that in to the cost of the mission trip, it’s not very much for the peace of mind.”

One benefit of supplemental travel insurance: Most carriers will evacuate the most serious cases back to the U.S. According to Ummel, this is not typically covered by standard domestic insurance for an overseas situation. To make the most of these benefits, be sure that each individual carries an insurance card. Most carriers list a 24-hour help line on the card; call this number once the individual is in stable condition.

For less severe illnesses, create a plan in advance for where you can house and care for the ill. “Isolation has become huge for us in providing a place to where someone with a fever can be separated from the rest of the group,” Potts says. “We’ve recently dealt with H1N1 and norovirus. Be really responsive and attentive to why someone’s running a fever or displaying symptoms. Are other people feeling the same way? Find out the source, and isolate it.”

Good hygiene practices, such as washing hands regularly and not sharing food or drinks, also are extremely important whenever traveling, whether anyone in the group is ill or not.

Worst-Case Scenario #4: Someone gets arrested or detained by local authorities.

Research the laws of destination countries ahead of time and prepare the team to remain within them. “Talk through these things and become aware of the laws and customs of the land; they may be significantly different than those in the United States,” Spacek says. For this information, contact the host country’s consulate in the U.S. as well as the U.S. embassy in the host country.

Regardless of your preparations, misunderstandings—and accidents—can occur. “We had some doctors that were thrown in jail because the person they operated on passed away and the government was saying they were responsible for the death, and they locked them up,” Ummel says.

In situations like those, do not panic, and do not resist authority.

“A lot of it’s really out of a lack of understanding how to communicate,” Potts says. “We’ve told people to remain calm, and to get someone who speaks (the native language) to the scene to help translate. At that time, just be submissive to the authority of the police and to find out what they’re looking for.”

Be particularly careful at airports, where you may run into problems with visas or security. Brewer advises groups to have a local missionary or a local contact travel with them as far as possible through the airport so they can help communicate with authorities if a problem arises.

If the situation is not resolved through communication, legal help may be needed. Most travel insurance policies include 24-hour legal advice hotlines. The State Department can also provide such services, but it will cost you if you don’t have insurance. Before you leave, make certain you have these numbers written down and readily accessible.

Worst-Case Scenario #5: Someone is the victim of armed robbery, an act of violence, or kidnapping.

As the situation unfolds, safety is key.

“Don’t struggle,” Ummel says. “Give them your money, your passport, or your wallet.”

This applies no matter the destination. After the threat passes, and any medical issues are addressed, report the incident to local authorities. “Evaluate the situation to make sure that this is just a random act,” Potts says. “Ask if the site needs to be closed and everyone needs to be sent home due to the lack of safety.” You can work with the host missionary and local authorities to assess the situation.

If you require legal advice, contact your travel insurance provider. The State Department can also help Americans who are victims of crime overseas. No two situations are exactly the same, but these resources can walk you through the process, provide legal advice and, if necessary, representation.

Before you leave, be sure to coach your group members about reducing their vulnerabilities to potential thieves and kidnappers. Some preventive advice: Don’t flash cash or expensive possessions, especially in public. Don’t tell others where you are staying. And be sure to keep doors and windows of vehicles and accommodations locked at all times.

Show Sensitivity

Should one of these worst-case scenarios occur, leaders must remember the emotional tolls their trip members may experience, Potts says. But it’s equally important not to let the incident overshadow any good outcomes from the trip, he says.

“A lot of times, people feel like they’ve been victimized by the community. You cannot take this one event and say, ‘It was a bad mission trip because the community didn’t protect me,'” he says.

Leaders of the trip should acknowledge an injustice when it occurs, he says, then help the individual move past the incident to embrace the positive elements of the trip.

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