Company in Northeast Philly answers international SOS calls

In Northeast Philadelphia, in a non-descript office building across from a Wal Mart, is the Americas headquarters for a company called International SOS.
It bills itself as a travel assistance company. Staffers help people plan trips to potentially dicey locales. They provide medical advice and sometimes get travelers out of hotspots–and they make it happen for a million clients worldwide. Ken Walton walks through a maze of people seated at computers with headsets–25 or so of them.

“This is the alarm center, so this is were it all happens,” said Walton. “It’s a little quiet right now, but we are working currently to evacuate people from Libya.”He’s headed toward the back to the security center–an office with glass walls.Inside, color-coded risk maps paste a wall. Above them are flat-screen TVs running 24-hour news. Resting on the floor are huge, military-looking backpacks, spilling over with gear. Walton rifles through one. “There’s lots of stuff here–water purifier, extension cord, Camelback, another water purifier, signal panels, sleeping bags, cliff bars…”The list goes on. It’s all the stuff he needs while on an evacuation mission. If you’re in a tight spot abroad–caught up in civil unrest or kidnapped–Ken Walton is your man. Anytime there’s an incident that requires we do a mass evacuation, or even a discreet evacuation, I’ll be the incident management team leader for that,” said Walton. “So, we’ll deploy on site and handle the evacuation on ground.”Walton just got back from Egypt, where he says he and his team helped to get over 1,200 International SOS clients out safely.

He clicks through photos on his cell phone to prove it. Next to a photo of military tanks lining Tahrir Square’s edge is another of Citizen’s Bank Park. That’s right, Walton’s a Philly guy. He was born here and moved away to the Philippines when he was a child. He moved back to Philly at 18, then joined the army and traveled the world as a Green Beret for 23 years. “We joke that I’m the only guy who’s been shot at on every continent except for Antarctica,” said Walton. After that, it was back to Philly again for this gig. For all his international know-how and military training, his first step in a ground evacuation mission seems simple. “Ya know, send a text,” Walton said. “The funny thing is, when we were in Haiti, when you had a complete collapse in infrastructure, we were doing everything via SMS text. I was coordinating aircraft to come in to the golf course in Petionville via SMS text.” To coordinate something like an aircraft landing, though, you’ve got to know whom to text. Walton and his team regularly travel around the globe to network. In the coming months, he’ll be traveling to Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. On the trips he fosters relationships with local car and bus services, takes inventory on safe hotels, and finds people who can be relied on in an emergency situation. It isn’t all sexy rescue missions, though. In the office, he does pre-travel advice and takes crisis phone calls while training others to do the same. He says an international background is the most important thing for anyone doing this job–the idea of shifting your mindset and understanding what its like to be and live in a foreign country. And you can’t really teach that. But the next most important thing, says Walton, you can teach: cynicism.

“You have to look at everything with a bit of a jaded view,” he said. “The bottom line is, the world’s a dangerous, dangerous place and there’s a lot of people that want to do bad things to you.” Kate Thomas gets ongoing training from Walton.

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“When I started, I just have to laugh, because I definitely was a little more trusting in people before I started working with Ken as my mentor,” said Thomas. “He really wanted me to think more in the Hobbesian theory that inherently people are bad.” 

She says that Walton has a mind like an encyclopedia. “You can just ask him about a certain location and he’ll tell you what your biggest threat is going to be,” she said. And that’s the key–translating all that traveling and networking into contacts Walton can call, or text, when things get dicey. So I put him to the test, and pointed to random spots on one of his maps. He had a contact, or “friend” everywhere my fingers touched. For all his knowledge, though, Walton has yet to complete a bachelor’s degree. “They don’t do a degree in what I do for a living,” he said.

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