New Services Offer More Protection to UCLA Travelers

As long as their travel plans are registered online, UCLA faculty, staff, and students can receive instant email warnings through a vendor working for UC.

UCLA Today

By Cynthia Lee

NEWS OF THE world's woes appears on Dean Malilay's computer screen daily – Somali pirates have hijacked a French ship. An outbreak of dengue fever has been detected in a region of Peru.

There's more: A border crossing in Greece has been blocked. A labor strike in Portugal has brought public transit to an abrupt halt. There's a cholera outbreak in Guinea.

These sobering daily summaries that go to UCLA's office of Insurance and Risk Management, which Malilay heads as director, could be mistaken for CNN news reports. But they are much more than headlines. They constitute real-time travel alerts from a vendor called iJet, that can be instantly e-mailed to UCLA faculty, staff and students working or traveling through areas of high danger, giving them advance warning of local health risks, travel impediments, political unrest and – as in the case of Mumbai, India – terrorist attacks.

One click, and Malilay can tell whether there are faculty, staff or students in these high-risk areas and contact them – as long as their travel plans are registered online.

The invaluable new service is offered free to all UC faculty, staff and students traveling abroad or out of state on official UC business or on UC-sponsored and supervised activities and programs abroad.

Because of the extensive traveling done by UCLA employees, that includes a lot of people, said Belinda Borden, manager of the UC Travel Center. "UCLA is always among the top three UC campuses for travel," she said.

Beyond e-mailed travel advisories, the new policy also provides medical evacuations in case of a very serious injury or illness. "If anyone is in a serious accident, the vendor, Europ Assistance, will contact medical specialists anywhere in the world to get the best advice available to the injured person," said Malilay. "In some cases, a physician or nurse can be flown in to assist with an evacuation to the closest country with western standards."

The new services are the result of extensive research done by UC Office of the President's Risk Services, which wants to be proactive, rather than reactive, to the growing risks involved in travel.

"We are probably one of the few, or maybe the only university system that has these benefits for students, staff and faculty. A lot of multinational companies use these same vendors to protect the health and welfare of their traveling employees," Malilay said.

UC has contracted with ACE Insurance Company, which, in turn, works with Europ Assistance and iJet, to provide these services. For example, iJet works from its Internet-based database, called Worldcue, to e-mail real-time information from a variety of sources, including the media, to UC employees and students whose registered travel plans show them to be in impacted areas.

After devastating tsunamis crashed into the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean in 2004, Europ Assistance mobilized about 150 of its employees to handle the crisis, including 25 medical personnel who were dispatched immediately to Thailand. More than 1,000 of its subscribers received medical, logistical and psychological assistance; 15 medically equipped jets were chartered to transfer the injured to hospitals in the region.

Many times, the e-mailed alerts from iJet go out before official information is issued by American consulates and embassies. Said Malilay: "iJet was able to get a travel warning out four days before the war between Lebanon and Israel broke out, and a couple of days before a State Department warning was issued."

When Mumbai was under attack in November, iJet e-mailed an alert to a UCLA anthropology professor in Bangalore, India, who had registered his trip a week before leaving the country. The e-mail alert informed him of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai and warned him to stay away from the city and major transportation hubs until the situation was defused. Malilay and his staff, who monitor Worldcue, also e-mailed him, confirming that he had received the warning and was safe.

"Because he had given us his emergency contact information, we were able to contact his wife at home – she didn't know what was happening in India – to assure her that he was all right," Malilay said. "We were also able to contact his department chair at home to let him know of the situation." The professor was given iJet's phone number in case he needed assistance. "By then, he was watching the news on television. He couldn't believe it."

Malilay found out later that there were other UCLA travelers in India, but because they hadn't registered, there was no way to know they were there at the time.

When the new services were announced systemwide, a few UC employees were reluctant to register their plans. "Initially, some people said, 'Is this Big Brother watching over us? Is this compromising my academic freedom?' But as world events, such as what happened in Mumbai, and natural disasters have occurred, people have begun to realize the value of doing this to safeguard their own security and health," Malilay said.

Warnings, insurance information and contact numbers can only be distributed to travelers if UC and UCLA know where UCLA travelers are going. If their travel is booked through UC Travel, then their trip information and insurance registration are automatically registered with iJet and Europ Assist, explained Borden.

But if they are not using UC Travel, then they need to go to UC Trips to file their trip information prior to leaving the country and to create a personal profile on iJet/Worldcue Traveler. (Beginning in February, UCLA travelers will only have to register on UC Trips, and they will automatically be listed with iJet/Worldcue Traveler.) Those who register will be given a UC insurance card with phone numbers to call and other emergency information.

"If they don't register, they don't have the insurance card or a telephone number they can call for help," Malilay said. "It just makes things more difficult on their end. Things happen so quickly. They could be in a hospital and not even know they have these insurance benefits or a phone number they can call."

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Published: Friday, January 09, 2009