Episode 15: Travel Safety at NYU
The NYU Department of Public Safety's Sean Hackett and Irene Cedano stop by to speak with Karen and Sabah about safety while traveling, including the university's enterprise travel system NYU Traveler, and what additional resources NYU community members abroad can access for assistance.
Sean Hackett is the Manager of Open Source Analysis in Public Safety's Global Security Operations Center, which monitors the world for any incidents that could impact students, faculty, or staff during their travels and helps support the NYU community in conducting classes, research, and social services in over 120 countries. Sean has a Master of Science in Transnational Security from NYU's Center for Global Affairs. Prior to working at NYU, Sean was an Intelligence Analyst at AIG's Global Security Operations Center with a regional focus on Latin America.
Irene Cedano is the Emergency Management and Open Source Analyst in the Department of Campus Safety where she works to support NYU community members before and during their travel. Prior to her current role, she was a dispatcher in NYU's 24/7 Communications Center. Irene graduated with her bachelor's degree in International Relations from the University of Delaware in 2017 and is currently enrolled in the School for Professional Studies pursuing a master's degree in Global Affairs.
Intro Voices [00:00:05] Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me?
Intro Voices [00:00:31] This is “You Matter”, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Public Safety.
Karen Ortman [00:00:38] Hi, everyone, and welcome back to “You Matter”, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your co-host, Karen Ortman, Assistant Vice President of field operations at the Department of Public Safety and a retired law enforcement professional.
Sabah Fatima [00:01:00] And I am Sabah Fatima, premed graduate student here at NYU College of Global Public Health. If any information presented today is triggering or disturbing, please feel free to contact the wellness exchange at 212-443-9999.
Karen Ortman [00:01:15] Today, our guests are Sean Hackett, manager, Open Source Analysis, and Irene Cedano, Emergency Management and Open Source Analyst at the Global Security Operations Center and the Department of Public Safety. Welcome, Sean and Irene.
Sean Hackett [00:01:32] Thank you for having us.
Karen Ortman [00:01:34] Sean and Irene are both going to talk to us today about travel safety at NYU. So, Sean, I'll direct the first question to you. What is NYU Travel Safety?
Sean Hackett [00:01:44] So we're a unit within a department of Public Safety. We're essentially tasked with monitoring the world for any impacts to the NYU global community, be that students, faculty, or staff working across the enterprise. Just to give you a sense of that scope, on average, we have about 10- to 15,000 travelers a year that go to around 120 countries. Most of that is to the global academic centers or to the portal campuses at Abu Dhabi or Shanghai. But it covers a pretty broad range of trips. What we do is we have platforms that kind of aggregate social media information. The world we live in today is one where if something happens, people will tweet about it before they call 911. So these platforms kind of pick up keywords, expressions, they push it to us and then we do our own due diligence just to check and verify the information, see what's really going on. And then depending on the severity, we will contact faculty, point of contacts, or individual travelers just to let them know what's going on and see if they need any assistance and provide whatever assistance we can. We also produce travel risk assessments for travelers. Again, that could be for individual students or for classes, staff, faculty. Typically for those we're targeting more what we consider high risk countries. And for that, we kind of leverage the U.S. State Department and their travel ratings. So these are places, for example, in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, some parts of Latin America, and then we also kind of provide a quick briefing for these travelers. Usually it's, you know, 10 minutes to at most a half hour just to kind of go over, like, what are some of the major risks? What are things you can do to stay safe while you travel? Because ultimately, the work that our community does around the world is important and it's life changing. And we want people to be able to go to these experiences, do this good work and then come home safely. Absolutely.
Karen Ortman [00:03:40] How do you determine a high risk country?
Sean Hackett [00:03:45] So the U.S. State Department, they have travel advisory levels and so they'll rank countries from one to five, five being the most severe, which is war zones, so Syria, Libya, Yemen. Four would be high risks. So there is only about maybe two dozen of those countries per se. And a lot of times it can vary. So, for example, Brazil by the U.S. State Department is considered a high risk because of the rate of violent crime. But even then, it really depends on where within Brazil you travel. There are a lot of parts of Brazil you can travel to perfectly safely, just kind of being aware of your surroundings. It's more of a broad kind of generalization, but it gives us a framework to work with.
Karen Ortman [00:04:25] So when we talk about the number of travelers and the number of countries that you are concerned with, what would be a number with respect to travelers and how many countries are we talking about?
Sean Hackett [00:04:41] So what we're really concerned with, I mean, really, you're only talking a few, maybe several dozen travelers. The trips that most are a concern to us and they get floated to our department to take a deeper look and identify any risks, these are trips typically by graduate students who are doing research in areas. Occasionally some faculty, although faculty, it's different because they're also subject matter experts. So we're not really briefing them per se. For example, there's some faculty members who do a lot of work in Iraq. They work with refugee centers. They work with local universities. They go to dig sites.
Karen Ortman [00:05:16] So they're already aware of the issues of concern.
Sean Hackett [00:05:19] They have decades of experience. So we're more kind of given an appraisal, what we're seeing on the ground recently. But it's a little bit different for graduates who might be going to those kinds of environments for the first time. But typically it's for that group. For the larger classes, particularly for undergraduates, really the locations they go to, they're never going to be very high risk. So it's more just to be aware what's going on in that surrounding if there is a major development just to be able to quickly touch base with those students, those travelers and just make sure they're okay and see if they need anything.
Karen Ortman [00:05:51] Is there ever an occasion where the level of risk changes suddenly? Where you have to make notifications to travelers rather quickly?
Sean Hackett [00:06:06] Yeah, I wouldn't think of it as much as the travel advisory rating because those very rarely change. But there are definitely developments that require us to reach out to folks. The best example I can think of that's happening right now in the news is Hong Kong. So Hong Kong historically, like much of East Asia, is extremely safe. But once the protests started to flare up, we had a few travelers, we had one group of students who were in Hong Kong. So we message them just to make sure they were aware, see if they needed any help. Their faculty had, of course, been following the news, had briefed students beforehand and during. So we were tracking then and then thankfully that group left for the duration of summer, we didn't really have a presence in Hong Kong, but the protests have progressively gotten worse. So that's an example where with Hong Kong, the travel advisory is still very low, but it's something we watch closely because we do have some students who are doing work there now and we want to see what's going on. And, you know, we have already messaged them. We're in contact with them about announcements on upcoming protests where there's going to be demonstrations, more just so they're aware, so they know areas to avoid at night. And you know what they need to do for their itinerary to work around it.
Karen Ortman [00:07:15] And what's the method by which you reach out to these travelers?
Sean Hackett [00:07:20] So predominantly email. So if it's for example, if it's an upcoming strike demonstration protest, typically something like that, we'll just email the students or travelers ahead of time. That's more just so they're aware of it. Then also, if they register their trip with NYU traveler, they get pushed alerts through that platform. You can register your trip with the U.S. State Department, they have their own alert. So there's, you know, there's multiple different layers of alerts you can receive if it's a serious incident. And the most recent one I can think of was a terrorist attack in Nairobi, which was in this past January. So we had travelers who were in Nairobi at the time. And right away we do emergency communications. So we're calling them, we're leaving voicemails, text messages.
Karen Ortman [00:08:03] Did you ever have to evacuate students, faculty or staff from a location due to an increased threat level?
Sean Hackett [00:08:12] Yes. It's happened in the past. You know, fortunately, in the times I've been with public safety, we haven't had a major evacuation, thankfully. The most recent example I can think of would be, I want to say it was about six months ago in Haiti, the protests were flaring up again and we didn't think we had any travelers. And then we learned later on that there were two resident members with NYU Langone, the medical school, who were doing work at a local hospital. So they reached out to their staff saying that they didn't feel safe. Our team was looped in. And then essentially we worked with them. The problem was that the protesters were blockading all the major roads in Haiti, including the road to the airport at Port au Prince to get out of the country. So we worked with them, we identified a way to get out. So essentially, they took an ambulance. The hospital they were working at agreed to put him in an ambulance, just turn on the siren and just drive through. And thankfully, the protesters opened up the blockade to allow the ambulance to continue. So we got them on a hotel onsite, it was basically adjacent to the airport. Then the next morning, they left on a commercial flight out. And then the following day there were blockades and protests and then the airport was essentially cut off.
Karen Ortman [00:09:24] So I'm going to turn to Irene right now. Irene, how does NYU travel safety work with the various schools at NYU?
Irene Cedano [00:09:32] So we like to keep close partnerships with each of the schools. You know, we have tabletop exercises where we work with travel administrators to kind of go through how, you know, if X, Y, Z situation happens, how do we respond to it. So we get a better understanding of that particular school and the way that they work through travel safety. And then also, as we continue to send e-mails and we work with them, they'll let us know about trips, which is really great about the new NYU Traveler database is that they're uploading their trips and they're putting if it's like, if a group of students are going to Greece, those will all kind of get compacted together. And then we'll know that this is the group that's going from this school. So if something happens, we know who the point of contact is. So I think that's really great because instead of reaching out to maybe like 200 students in blank country, we're reaching out to their travel administrator, to be like hey, we see this, what's going on down there? And they'll be like, “Oh, it's fine, you know, we're in X part of the country” or “No, it's not going too great.” So we'll do that. We work very closely in partnerships. And then also we work together with the Office of Global Programs, OGP, and Enterprise Risk Management, and we really sort of push back and forth with time, especially with, you know, anything with a portal campus or something. If we see something there, then there's so many people to reach out to there, which is great because instead of trying to find a random number, we have their duty phone or something like that and we can reach out. And then I think a lot of times that's usually who I reach out to first. And I usually get the best information from them because they're there on the ground or, you know, you call OGP and they're able to reach out to their own people. So that's awesome.
Sabah Fatima [00:11:18] How does NYU Travel Safety respond in an emergency?
Irene Cedano [00:11:22] So I think the first thing, and Sean kind of touched on this a bit, but we do have a bunch of platforms that allow us to look at social media and stuff. So we'll take a look at those immediate sort of responses and tweets and news articles and then we'll kind of check the impacts. You know, I like to think of it as like a probability thing. I think the best thing that Sean kind of explained to me is that it's an art. It's not a science. And I think when we first look at the thing like it's like, oh, well, we should probably do this. But every single incident, every single protest or attack is so different. So it's more of an art where we'll check to see, like, what's the probability if it's something like, if someone were to attack a train station in the middle of the city, then that's something that could possibly impact travelers. But if it's something that's like in the outskirts of the city, like what's the, I like to think of what's the probability? And of course, we'll go through NYU Traveler, which is why it's so important that people register through it, because it lets us know that, hey, someone's there. And by us looking through it, I'll go through and I'll check, I'll go through everybody's name and I'll see if they're in the city, If they're out of city, did they already leave the country? So if we know that someone's possibly in that particular area, we can actually send out messages to travelers. So Sean kind of talked about how most of the time it's an email, but we also have a system that allows us to send email, phone, text messages, like I've called people, I know Sean has too.
Karen Ortman [00:12:52] To say what?
Irene Cedano [00:12:53] To kind of be like, “Hey, you know, we see X, Y, Z happening. Can you let us know, are you OK,” if it rises to that level of, like, we need to do a check in. And also, we'll just notify our own partners, OGP.
Karen Ortman [00:13:07] What is OGP?
Irene Cedano [00:13:09] Office of Global Programs.
Sean Hackett [00:13:10] So Office of Global Programs basically handles all of the global academic centers. So if a student wants to go to NYU London, the office of global programs will work with them in terms of orientation, paper work - they'll work with the Office of Global Services to make sure they have all the necessary visa information if they require it based on their nationality, and then they have their own local staff at each of the sites. And they’re a key partner with us to help us better provide service to the academic centers, which have a broader range of resources for students, as opposed to a group of students going to Kenya or Uganda or Brazil, where you don't have the infrastructure of an NYU something in that city or that country.
Karen Ortman [00:13:49] So NYU Travel Safety is something that is exclusively NYU Manhattan in public safety, we don't have satellite offices at all of our global sites or do we?
Sean Hackett [00:14:08] Not really. So Abu Dhabi and Shanghai have their own public safety departments that are 24/7, and they also work with their travelers because NYU Shanghai will kind of do their own travel, which we're also looped into. But in terms of really monitoring the world and the globe for the full travel range, it's really our team here in Manhattan.
Karen Ortman [00:14:28] Do you do you often get requests or outreach from parents or any member of the community who has a particular concern prior to traveling? Do they know about the services that you provide? Do they know that you exist, that you're a resource?
Sean Hackett [00:14:50] I mean, I think some do. We've definitely gotten some messages in the past from from students who know of us. We're definitely, we're available to everyone, to the full community. Just kind of throw it out there if anyone has any questions about traveling and travel safety, etc., you can just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That'll hit our full team and we're happy to help. One example I can think of was a graduate student who was looking to go to Cuba just for a personal vacation. Reached out, wasn't sure how to how to go. And I worked with that individual to identify and say, you know, this particular student wasn't a U.S. national, but he was traveling from New York to Cuba. And so he would fall under the sanctions and then I had to inform him, you know, tourism is not a valid reason to go, we had to work with the office of global services to identify an appropriate means that he could travel that would fall under the authorization of U.S. law. And so, yeah, we definitely have gotten some of those requests and we're always happy to to field more.
Karen Ortman [00:15:50] That's great. So that brings us to safety tips to our listener. So Sean and Irene, if you can offer any travel safety tips to our listeners, what would they be?
Sean Hackett [00:16:05] Irene, if you want to go first, you were in Ethiopia earlier this year, so you gotta put these tips to practice.
Karen Ortman [00:16:11] So why were you in Ethiopia?
Irene Cedano [00:16:12] So we get to do site surveys, which is where we'll look at some of those State Department declared, you know, risk level countries like 3 and 4. So we kind of look at where students are going throughout the year and then we'll kind of make, we'll do the Excel spreadsheet and we'll see, well, you know, they're going a lot to New Zealand and stuff, but New Zealand doesn't have that many sort of - I think New Zealand's one of the highest countries that students are going to I think between New Zealand and somewhere in China, I think.
Sean Hackett [00:16:42] Yeah. In terms of total numbers. Yeah. New Zealand is up there.
Irene Cedano [00:16:44] Yeah. New Zealand's up there. So, you know, we're not really worried about students going New Zealand because it's relatively safe. But you know, on the list, like Sean's been to South Africa, Will’s been to Lebanon and stuff and Ethiopia was on that list. So I got the chance to go to Ethiopia. And it was definitely a life changing experience, I think I could put it like that because, you know, I went on my own. So just being in a different country where you don't speak the language and, you know, trying to figure out, how do I take a taxi and how do I get a taxi to take me to this area. And then also just being worried, because you don't really know what's going to happen. Cell phone reception is not great. There's no Internet unless you're hooked up to the Wi-Fi.
Karen Ortman [00:17:27] So what was your purpose? So what did you do when you went there?
Irene Cedano [00:17:30] Yes. So when I went there, I spoke with hotels. I met at the U.S. embassy with the regional security officer. I also checked out just to see the actual lay of the land. So if somebody else wants to go, I could be like, well, I've been there before and I've spoken at these hotels and kind of see what their own safety security standards are and stuff like that.
Karen Ortman [00:17:51] So these are hotels that you anticipate our students or someone from our community would be staying?
Sean Hackett [00:17:56] Well, what we normally do is we reach out to OSAC. So that’s the Overseas Security Advisory Council, it's a private sector partnership with the U.S. State Department. So the U.S. State Department oversees it. And all these private companies, including Fortune 500 companies, other higher education institutions like NYU, they all kind of collaborate and share information. And so what we do is we reach out to them and say, are there any hotels that you've used in the past that you would recommend that were safe?
Karen Ortman [00:18:27] And those hotels you'll go to.
Sean Hackett [00:18:28] Yes. And we also work with travel providers that work with NYU. And we'll ask then, hey, have there been other hotels that you've used in the past that students went to? And so this way we can go and we're not just reviewing random hotels. We're looking at either major Western chain hotels or hotels that students have actually use just to see, you know, what's the security like within the hotel, within the surrounding environments. We check out our local hospitals. Again, those are hospitals that are preferred by Geo Blue, which is the insurance that all NYU travelers fall under.
Karen Ortman [00:19:01] So anything else about your trip to Ethiopia, you said it was a life changing experience.
Irene Cedano [00:19:04] Yeah. So, you know, I got the chance to go through the capital and I really couldn't walk around. And I think that's something, as a woman, you know, you travel somewhere else and you’re traveling somewhere new. And I think it's something important, I think it goes back to our tips where, you know, you have to be observant of your surroundings, because once I got a ride from the hotel, from the airport to the hotel. And I noticed that you really didn't see any women walking alone. And of course, it was kind of late at night. It was maybe eight or nine. And if you saw women they were in a group and stuff. And I think it's something where you learn a lot more from the locals than anything else and from speaking to people, they were like, “Yeah, no, we really don't walk around by ourselves” and stuff like that. So I took that and I didn't walk around. I think I walked maybe like 100 feet to walk to a location that was nearby. And you can kind of tell that, you know, people are just more observant of you. So then you keep in mind about where you're walking to, how late. So I used taxis for a good portion of my time there. And I think, I mean, I called Sean throughout my whole trip just to kind of like let him know. I went to another part of Ethiopia called Awasa and it's absolutely beautiful, they actually have a massive lake there that has hippos and stuff. But I arrived there and there was no cell phone reception. And there was, I didn't really have Wi-Fi. And the country goes through so many blackouts and they do so many communication cut offs that I finally got to the hotel and I called Sean and I was like, I don't feel safe walking around. And that was a real moment between me and Sean, because it's one of those things where you have to sort of weigh out your own security and how you feel about something. And even though I really wanted to go look around and I wanted to see what the area was like and I wanted to go to the lake and I wanted to do these things so I can provide this information for our own travelers here. But I knew, in my own mind, that my safety was going to be at risk because there really wasn't anybody I can call if something happened outside of the hotel.
Karen Ortman [00:21:06] Because you were alone there, too. So how does that experience translate to are potential travelers to that location? How did they learn of your experience? What do you do with that information?
Sean Hackett [00:21:19] Well, what we'll do is when we find out about trips to Ethiopia, for example, when we provide the written assessment outline, like what are the major risks, what are the things you could do to stay safe. We'll also do a briefing with that traveler. And now Irene is essentially our subject matter expert on Ethiopia. So she'll do that briefing and you can just speak more authoritatively about it.
Karen Ortman [00:21:39] Right, because you were there.
Sean Hackett [00:21:41] Yeah, like we have a lot of travelers going to South Africa. So I'll handle those briefings because I've been in South Africa. I was in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Capetown. And so you can kind of just bring that the local knowledge as well. So it’s definitely a benefit.
Karen Ortman [00:21:52] Are there any other resources that you can share with our listeners?
Sean Hackett [00:21:59] Yes. So the best thing is whenever you're planning a trip as just do a little bit of research ahead of time and do your due diligence, as it were. So there are some great resources that you can use. There is the U.S. State Department. If you just kind of Google that and the name the country on their Website, they have pretty good write-ups about some tips that you need to know about crime and safety. They'll tell you about local scams that you might encounter. They'll give you tips about transportation, is it safe to use public transportation, can you hail taxis, do you need an official taxi, which you can ask for at your hotel or at a restaurant. You can also obviously email our team, the email@example.com. We also recommend that travelers who are U.S. citizens enroll in the step program. So it's a smart traveler enrollment program that's through the U.S. State Department. So that way, when you travel, if, God forbid, there is a major disaster, a natural disaster or what have you in the country. If your family needs to know your well-being and your whereabouts, they can contact the U.S. embassy and they'll have a record that you are in X country, in X City from these dates. They know you're there. They'll know to look for you. So they'll check hotels, they'll check hospitals to gain accountability of all U.S. citizens. And then also the local embassies have their own teams that are kind of checking local news for any protests, demonstrations, roadblocks, anything like that. And they push those alerts to everyone who's enrolled. So I did it when I was in South Africa. And actually I got an alert about a major strike in Johannesburg and I actually had to change around my itinerary and get to my meetings a couple hours early. But I was able to finish my meetings on time. And other people who weren't aware sat in traffic for about three hours. So it's really quick, only takes about two minutes. You can even just do it on your phone through the website. Definitely a great benefit. For any NYU students who aren't U.S. citizens, a lot of governments do something similar. So you can just look up your own local embassy and just see what kind of resources they provide. And then lastly, we kind of mentioned NYU traveler. There is a new NYU traveler. It's easier than ever to register your trips. You can do it manually through the website, you can just Google NYU traveler. If you book your trip through Egencia it automatically gets uploaded. And then the last way is when you book your trip, either flight or hotel, you get that email confirmation. You can forward it from your NYU email to firstname.lastname@example.org and that'll automatically upload it as well.
Karen Ortman [00:24:31] Oh nice.
Sean Hackett [00:24:33] Yeah, it's super easy.
Sabah Fatima [00:24:35] So how soon do they notify a person if there's a situation that's about to occur?
Sean Hackett [00:24:41] I mean, it's going to depend and a lot of times it depends more on the situation on the ground. There are just some countries where protests just kind of flare up out of nowhere. And you might only get a few hours, you know, of a head start and then other countries based on local laws, they have to get authorization from the local government or administration and then announce it, so you have, you know, several days of headwind, but that's going to vary on the location.
Sabah Fatima [00:25:07] Does NYU travel safety integrate with safe NYU.
Irene Cedano [00:25:12] So, yeah, actually, everybody should get safe NYU, if you don't have safe NYU, we have a bigger problem. Everybody needs it because not only is it great for, you know, local things, like if you need to know what the public safety number is or if you need to call 911, you need chat with public safety... It's great for when you're traveling abroad. So it actually has the emergency contacts for, I think, about 194 countries, and then it also for each country, you're actually able to, you know, check in. So let's say, you know, you forgot to send in your itinerary, but you want NYU to know if you want public safety, to know that you're in blank country, it actually has a check in button that works for, 48 hours?
Sean Hackett [00:25:53] Yeah, 48 hours.
Irene Cedano [00:25:54] 48 hours. And it sends us a notification so that we know like, hey, this person's here and actually you're able to go through and pick your country and also have, you know, transportation information, some general information. You know, we'll go through that annually and we'll update it, can you take Uber, you know, I mentioned about public transportation and stuff like that. So it's great. And it allows us to really kind of reach out to students, and students are able to use the mobile blue light button on there.
Karen Ortman [00:26:25] In addition, they can access this podcast through victim services, I believe there’s a link in there.
Sean Hackett [00:26:39] Yeah, there's a link now in the app.
Sabah Fatima [00:26:39] Is there anything that you and Sean would like to add before we end this?
Sean Hackett [00:26:44] I’d say the main thing, again, as Irene was saying, if you haven't already downloaded the safe NYU app, log into it. It's a great resource. When you travel, it'll automatically update to your location, all the resources that we talked about here, like the U.S. State Department, that step program, Geo Blue for your insurance, it’s all on the app. There's access to all of those features. And the other thing I want to mention is that we're in the stages now of finalizing a travel safety video. So it's gonna be a short four minute video, just kind of outline roughly what we talked about here, which are what are the resources you have as a member of the NYU community when you travel abroad. That's going to kind of outline a lot of these same features. The push alerts, NYU, Traveler, Safe NYU and our team as a resource. When you need it, that's great.
Sabah Fatima [00:27:30] So when does that come out?
Sean Hackett [00:27:33] So we're hoping by this semester, hopefully this fall, we'll be able to publicize it.
Sabah Fatima [00:27:39] Got it. Perfect. Well, thank you, Sean and Irene, and thanks to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of You Matter.
Karen Ortman [00:27:47] If any information presented today was triggering or disturbing, please feel free to contact the wellness exchange at 212-443-9999.
Sabah Fatima [00:27:58] You can also get in touch with NYU’s Department of Public Safety and their victim services unit by calling 212-998-2222, and make sure to look for other episodes of You Matter on Apple podcasts, Google Play and Spotify.