Ray Thomas sits at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. headquarters in McLean, asking about a consultant who has returned to Australia from work in China with a fever, achy muscles and a sore throat.
Does he have bird flu, which has killed 60 people in Asia and raised fears of a global pandemic? Should he be quarantined? Should particulate masks be distributed? What are the implications for Booz Allen's technology infrastructure?
And what if terrorists pose as caterers and set off bombs at company headquarters during a large conference? Where do the 4,500 Booz Allen employees go?
For now, these are tabletop exercises that Thomas, Booz Allen's master of disaster, has constructed, a planning device to keep the management consulting firm and its 17,000 employees around the world safe and working through hurricanes, ice storms and terrorist attacks. After all, people are the core asset of its business.
"Once you start realizing Booz Allen is a worldwide company and you're going to have the Bali bombings and you're going to have Madrid issues and you're going to have hurricanes -- hardly a month goes by that we're not on the phone collectively talking about something," said Gary Lance, the company's senior director of administrative services, referring to regular conference calls among senior executives focused on risk management.
Hurricane Katrina was another turning point for companies that might have made emergency planning a low priority. Three weeks after Katrina, Sodexho Inc., the Gaithersburg-based food services management company, still didn't know the whereabouts of about 250 of its employees, many of whom worked in cafeterias in the hurricane's path. As Hurricane Rita approached, it updated a contact list and gave employees a toll-free number. Government contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. also was prepared with an 800 number.
As for Booz Allen, it wasn't always so focused on risks to its own business, even though for years it has sold continuity-of-operations expertise to corporate and government clients, including the Defense Department. On Sept. 11, 2001, three Booz Allen consultants were in the Pentagon to brief an Army general. The company didn't realize until 24 hours later that its consultants had died in the attack that day.
The chaos of Sept. 11 pushed Booz Allen to go over its own business contingency plans, and at the end of 2003 the business assistance office was created with Thomas as its director. A former U.S. Army special forces officer, Thomas worked as a Booz Allen consultant to government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Communications System, working to keep crucial telecommunications infrastructure up and running.
Thomas's seven-person unit functions as Booz Allen's emergency management agency, establishing procedures for all types of disasters. "In a crisis, information tends to be the most limiting factor," Thomas said. So he established a weekly session for top-level executives to discuss crisis management and set up an incident response team in each satellite office to facilitate efficient on-the-ground response.
About 4:45 a.m. on July 7, Thomas was awakened by the London office, reporting that several bombs had exploded in the city's subway system. "I went into my den, got online, and watched CNN," Thomas said.
The London leadership went down the emergency contact list, accounting for staff. In the global consulting business, though, someone might be traveling through the city, laying over on the way to another client. So Thomas's team checked a database of travel itineraries before concluding that no employees were affected. The traveler tracker also came in handy during last December's tsunami, when the firm was able to verify that two staff members vacationing in Southeast Asia were safe and sound.
Thomas takes an all-hazards approach, setting up a crisis management infrastructure that is adapted for each situation. "A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work for our corporate structure," Thomas said. For remote offices, Thomas meets with local leaders to make emergency plans specific to the area.
In San Francisco, where the threat of a devastating earthquake always looms, Booz Allen has met with building managers and distributed pocket-size information cards to employees containing emergency contact information. The Gulf Coast offices, including two in New Orleans, had plastic sheeting ready to place over computers. Thomas has a biweekly phone call with managers in the Middle East to examine ongoing risks.
Before Ramadan began, Thomas reminded Booz Allen staffers in the area not to eat in public places during the day, to respect the daily fasting. "We advise them to stay off the roads certain times, especially around sunset," Thomas said. "A lot of times traffic is more of a risk than terrorism."
The company also taps outside contractors, including a firm that assesses travel risk; a global medical emergency specialist; and a message service, which can immediately send out alerts by phone, e-mail and BlackBerry.
Booz Allen has conducted three avian flu exercises and has considered other measures including stockpiling doses of Tamiflu, but decided against that after reading reports from the World Health Organization that the bird flu strain is resistant to the drug. The company has also examined methods of decontamination and looked into purchasing particulate masks.
And in case bird flu forces everyone to work from home, Thomas said, the firm has made sure its information technology infrastructure can handle thousands of remote users.
Earlier this year, a small fire at Booz Allen headquarters offered the company a real-life test.
"You're much more likely to be caught in a building fire than as a victim of terrorism," said Thomas, who noted all evacuated safely. "We want people to have an understanding of what the real risks are."