Hurricanes, Zika Virus, Appendicitis: How does Earthwatch Assess Risk and Promote Safety in the Field?

By Dianna Bell

Risk is an inherent part of traveling, and even more broadly, risk is present in every aspect of our lives. At Earthwatch, we’re committed to caring for the safety and welfare of each and every one of our volunteers who dedicate their time to supporting environmental research throughout the world. Whether you’re tracking endangered wildlife in Malawi or responding to a climate crisis in the Peruvian Amazon, unexpected incidents can happen. However, we believe that through careful risk management and diligent planning, Earthwatch volunteers can have a rewarding, educational, and inspirational experience.

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You might be wondering how, exactly, Earthwatch responds when there’s a safety incident in the field — a medical emergency, perhaps, or a dangerous weather event. How do we assess risks related to terrorist activities near project sites, or threats from disease epidemics, such as Zika virus? To help answer these questions, we’ve collected a few stories of actual incidents that occurred in the field, and the ways in which Earthwatch, our insurance partners at Healix International, and the scientists and staff in the field handled the care of these individuals. We’ve also featured four scenarios related to worries we hear from our volunteers, and what Earthwatch’s response would be in each case.


Volunteer Perspectives:

A Medical Emergency in Malawi

A herd of elephants at the Majete Wildlife Reserve.

A herd of elephants at the Majete Wildlife Reserve.

In the fall of 2015, Patricia Leroy was on the expedition Animals of Malawi in the Majete Wildlife Reserve. She was riding with her teammates in a safari truck, when the vehicle hit a bump, she fell off, landed on her back, and lost consciousness for about three minutes. Despite her traumatic experience, Patricia reflects on Earthwatch’s response to the incident with positivity.

“The group leader made dozens of phone calls and stayed with me [at the clinic] until it was time to go to bed. She came back the next morning to check on how I was feeling and only then returned to the base camp. That day, I was contacted by Healix, Earthwatch’s insurance partner, who wanted to transfer me to South Africa because hospitals there had access to better equipment.

“So I was transferred by air ambulance to Johannesburg airport and from there, directly to a private clinic. I stayed there another ten days, benefiting from physiotherapy every day, until I felt well enough to fly back to Switzerland.

“During this entire period, there was not a day when I was not contacted by people from Earthwatch in Malawi and in the U.S., or by the person from Healix who was in charge of my case. I was very well taken care of, not only medically but also psychologically. Everybody was so kind and helpful. It may sound strange to say this, but I found it an interesting and positive experience!

“I’m now only waiting to have fully recovered to take part in another Earthwatch mission.”

Hurricane Joaquin Strikes in the Bahamas

A volunteer holds a sea turtle on our expedition Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas.

A volunteer holds a sea turtle on our expedition Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas.

When Hurricane Joaquin escalated from a Category 1 to a Category 3 storm within days of the start of the expedition Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas in October of 2015, Earthwatch Lead Scientist Annabelle Brooks worked with staff in the U.S. to ensure the safety of the volunteers.

Even though the storm was due to pass through the Bahamas by late on the day the Earthwatch participants were scheduled to arrive, the field station would be running with very limited staff, the water would be too murky to conduct research, and the roads to and from the airport ran the risk of being flooded.

Earthwatch proactively cancelled the team to avoid safety hazards brought about by potential damage from the storm. The risk, in this case, was too high and the safety of the volunteers was Earthwatch’s priority. The volunteers who were booked on that expedition were offered the option of joining a different team or another expedition of their choosing.

Appendicitis in Brazil

In May of 2015, EY fellow and Earthwatch volunteer Aric Johnstone was trekking through Brazil when he started to experience severe stomach cramps. He was immediately taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with appendicitis.

EY Fellows take measurements of the many species of birds in Brazil.

EY Fellows take measurements of the many species of birds in Brazil.

“Earthwatch was, simply put, remarkable in handling an unexpected emergency trip to the hospital in rural Brazil for appendix surgery,” he said. “From start to finish, I felt completely safe and in good hands while one of my project managers stayed with me night and day for four days until I was released — even at the expense of quality sleep as they only had a small reclining sofa!

“I was also reassured by the fact that Earthwatch performs a comprehensive emergency assessment at all of their sites to know where the preferred hospitals are and to know exactly what to do in emergencies like mine. I really can’t say enough about the care and attention I was provided, and reflect on the experience with great fondness and appreciation of the Earthwatch team!”


Safety Scenarios & Responses from Kim Cassello, Earthwatch Director of Risk Management:

Scenario 1: I am interested in traveling to Central and South America, but I worry about contracting Zika. What are the risks associated with expeditions in this area? Is it likely I will get Zika?

Earthwatch monitors the latest health risks in all of the countries in which we work through several international resources, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). We encourage our volunteers to base their travel plans off of recommendations provided by these institutions.

The Zika virus causes a mild 2-7 day illness in most people with symptoms including low-grade fever, joint pain, rash, headache, and eye pain. The risk of contracting the Zika virus is relatively low for most people, however, there is evidence that its effect on unborn children is more serious. Women who are pregnant or expecting to become pregnant are advised to consider postponing travel to areas where the virus is active due to the increased risk of microcephaly in the fetus.

Scenario 2: I booked an expedition to Kenya, but I’m thinking of canceling due to past terrorism activity in the country. How does Earthwatch monitor this activity and what would happen in the instance a terror attack occurred while I was in the field?

Earthwatch monitors global events continuously via daily health and security updates for the countries in which we work from non-profit and private sources as well as several government sources — including the U.K. Foreign Commonwealth Office, U.S. State Department and Australia’s Smart Traveller, embassy websites, and more. Our scientists and field staff provide another invaluable resource for security information, as many of them live and work in the project regions. They offer an “on the ground” perspective as well as monitor local media.

Earthwatch maintains a Threat Assessment for every country in which we work. This is a country-level assessment of political and security concerns, geo hazards, availability of healthcare, infrastructure and more. Countries and regions in which we will not work due to safety concerns are added to our “No Go” List. Every project also undergoes a Risk Assessment — which is a project-specific evaluation of the site location, any hazards present, and recommended mitigation measures.

exploring lions - two baby giraffes

In the event a security incident did occur, Earthwatch has several resources to help us respond in an effective and efficient way.

First, we advise you to remain in your hotel room and call Earthwatch’s 24-hour assistance line. If you are already at the field site, the Earthwatch scientist would refer to the project’s Emergency Response Plan and call the local authorities as well as Earthwatch’s 24-hour assistance line.

Our 24-hour on-call Duty Officer would then convene the other members of our International Incident Management Team to respond to the incident. This is a team of dedicated and trained Earthwatch staff who are ready to assist in the event of an incident in the field.

Earthwatch will liaise with you, project staff, the appropriate authorities, embassies, and security advisors to stay abreast of the situation and determine next steps. If action is deemed necessary, our Security Assistance Providers Control Risks Group (CRG) would initiate an evacuation. Emergency evacuations are covered under our Travel insurance policy.

Scenario 3: As a single woman traveling alone, I am afraid to travel outside of the country. I worry about being separated from the group due to travel delays. What safety and communications measures does Earthwatch have in place?

Earthwatch has a 24-hour Duty Officer line available to all participants and project staff. The Duty Officer is a trained Earthwatch staff person who is ready to help at any time, day or night. Travel delays are common and the Duty Officer can offer travel assistance, arrange transport to the field, and relay messages to project staff so they will know exactly where and when to meet you.

All members of the Earthwatch family also have access to Healix International, a world-class travel assistance provider. Participants and project staff can call Healix directly or the Duty Officer can do so on their behalf. Healix can help with adjusting travel arrangements, lost passports, medical emergencies and more.

Scenario 4: I am a parent with a teen who is traveling alone for the first time. I’m worried about my child’s safety while in the field. How well are the field staff trained as far as first-aid goes and what kind of background checks are performed?

All teen team facilitators are trained in first aid as appropriate to the project — this includes basic first aid, lifeguard, or wilderness first aid depending on the location, activities and proximity to medical care. In addition, many project staff are trained in first aid as appropriate to the project, but each project is different. On some projects, the personnel are already trained and on others, Earthwatch funds training for key members of staff. Our target is one or two trained staff on each team.

Teen team facilitators and project staff on teen teams undergo background checks which look for any records of criminal or sexual offenses. Background checks are renewed every three years.

Every project has been assessed for risk and has specific mitigation measures in place. Every project also has a detailed Emergency Response Plan in place in the event an issue occurs.

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