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Coming to the rescue of travelers in trouble

The Baltimore Sun

Medical and security information continuously scrolls across a flat screen television monitor, offering messages like "Car bombing, possible deceased."

Some 45 call center employees handle 300 to 500 calls every day, around the clock. Their cubicle name tags indicate what languages the "assistance coordinators" speak - among them, 15 languages are available. Alphonse Ndour is fluent in French and Wolof, a West African language out of his native Senegal.

The 365-day operation in Towson is the nerve center behind a travelers' assistance and insurance company that provides security and political evacuation to corporate and government workers overseas. The company gained notice last year when it helped evacuate clients out of Lebanon after Hezbollah paramilitary forces began firing rockets and mortars at Israeli border villages.

MEDEX Global Group Inc. has about 13 million clients around the globe and provides a host of services including travel assistance, health insurance and evacuation aid. Its clients include corporations, colleges and individuals. Many of the company's Fortune 500 companies want the services available for their overseas workers. Colleges use it for students studying abroad. Individuals can buy coverage for as little as $2 a day.

The Towson office is the headquarters and command center. Additional administrative and sales offices, with one employee each, are in the United Kingdom and Beijing.

"Post-9/11 we saw a lot of our clients asking for the security piece," said Bruce Kirby, chief executive officer.

Kirby said MEDEX began selling a package two years ago that caters to companies - such as Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp. - to provide emergency political and security evacuations, in addition to medical evacuation and connections to doctors and hospitals around the world. Other local companies on the client list include T. Rowe Price, McCormick & Co. and Black & Decker.

MEDEX also offers pre-travel immunization information and health planning, travel medical kits and other travel products such as international cell phones, satellite phones and BlackBerrys.

Raymond Brusca, vice president of benefits at Black & Decker, said his company had a policy with MEDEX's rival - International SOS - when he arrived in 1989, but the program was terminated a year later. After six years with no assistance plan, Black & Decker hired MEDEX in 1996, Brusca said.

The service, which provides Black & Decker employees with round-the-clock assistance for health, travel and other emergencies while overseas, gives workers some peace of mind because they know they can call for help if they find themselves in an unsafe situation, Brusca said.

'There are questions'

"Russia, Africa, the Pacific Rim? We don't know," he said. "There are questions about the health care there. ... We've had some fairly significant cases."

Each year, Black & Decker sends about 1,000 employees abroad on business, mostly to China, Mexico and Western Europe. The company is paying MEDEX about $50,000 a year for its services, Brusca said.

Nicole Beach, marketing and public relations manager at MEDEX, said the pricing for corporate clients varies from a few thousand dollars to $100,000 a year, depending on the number of travelers, their frequency in traveling abroad and the destinations.

Kirby said MEDEX has grown about 20 percent during the past five years. Noting that it's a privately held company, he declined to provide annual earnings or revenue. Kirby said the company was preparing a few hundred pre-trip security reports a year in 2001 and 2002 - a number he expects will jump to more than 1,000 this year.

"Regrettably, when you see a headline about a car bombing, some of them are our clients," said David Mair, director of client relations.

MEDEX covers about 330 companies that do government contracting, including some with employees who live in the Green Zone of central Baghdad and build bridges and power systems there. Others work in South Africa teaching farmers new agricultural and other land-use practices.

The company relies on a network of 43,000 providers around the world for things such as medical assistance and air evacuation. Kirby and his staff assess three or four different quotes from air services and ambulance providers in an evacuation scenario to get the client out of danger's way. MEDEX's response time for evacuations can range anywhere from five minutes to 30 hours.

When the first calls from Lebanon starting coming in July 13 last year, one day after Hezbollah paramilitary forces began firing rockets and mortars at Israeli villages, employees at MEDEX realized they were responsible for getting 16 corporate, scholastic and other clients home - whether home was the United States, Finland, Romania or Canada.

'Link back home'

"We're that link back home, which is a big part of the battle for us," Kirby said.

After Israeli forces bombed the international airport in Beirut, Lebanon, the calls escalated from corporate clients north of the city and Yale students studying there.

"Within 10 hours, we lost all three primary evacuation routes," said Steve Kellner, chief of intelligence for Houston-based ASI Group, a global risk management team that served as MEDEX's security partner for the Lebanon evacuations. "We lost air immediately, then ground access to the south, then we lost sea."

By working with ASI employees on the ground, MEDEX was able to move the clients safely to locations north of Beirut.

The political situations that MEDEX deals with include kidnappings, muggings and theft while abroad. Earlier this summer, for example, the threat of a military coup in Thailand had clients calling to ask if tanks rolling down the street at 11 p.m. were part of a parade, Mair said. He told the travelers that the display was a government convoy but not a takeover attempt.

Kirby said he would like to see Americans take the same approach to traveling - and the world's changing dynamics - as foreigners do. "Outside the U.S., people purchase travel insurance on a regular basis," he said. "They are so much more aware of the need."

stephanie.newton@baltsun.com

MEDEX at a glance

Founded:

1977 in Brighton, England

Current headquarters:

Towson

Employees:

85 (83 in Towson, one in the United Kingdom, one in Beijing)

Total network:

43,000 providers (physicians and other experts, hospitals, clinics, transportation providers)

Total languages across network:

40

Total clients:

13 million

Total clients in Iraq:

9,000

Total annual cases:

25,000

Services offered:

Multilingual emergency response, medical evacuation and repatriation, security and political evacuation, international medical insurance and claims administration, travel intelligence and alerts, destination information, pre-travel immunization information and health planning, contingency planning, travel medical kits

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