By special assignment: Seeing the world

Last November, Heidi C. Thomas, RDR, CRR, a member of NCRA’s Board of Directors, boarded a plane armed with her equipment case and steno machine. Accompanied by a technical expert, Thomas, an independent contractor from Roswell, Ga., with 36 years of experience as a court reporter and 25 years of experience as a captioner, flew nearly 14 hours to an assignment in Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. Hired by a captioning firm, Thomas spent two weeks in Dubai, considered to be the most modern and progressive of the United Arab Emirates, providing CART services during an international conference.

Thomas, who has also completed assignments in Japan, Lithuania, Mexico, Africa, and Switzerland, says that while traveling overseas to work is an exciting opportunity to experience other cultures, it can also prove challenging, especially, she says, when toting along all of her realtime equipment, including steno machine, computer, and tables.

“I keep my equipment case with me at all times. I never check it with my baggage, and when I go through security or customs, I sometimes think the security folks want to detain me or jail me. Of course, it depends where you are and how the authorities view your work. In Switzerland, they are happy to see you and invite you right in,” Thomas says. “But sometimes it can be even more difficult getting your equipment out of a country. In Mexico, for example, there were discussions about taxing my equipment.”

BE PREPARED

Prior to arriving for an assignment overseas, Thomas says CART providers, captioners, and court reporters need to be sure that all of their equipment will work properly, since many countries have different electrical outlets and voltage requirements than the United States, not to mention different Internet regulations. Nothing is worse than being overseas for an assignment and finding out that chargers and adapters won’t work or that your feeds won’t interface with a country’s recording or video format, she explains. Typically, the captioning companies that hire her take care of letting her know what, if any, additional adapters, plugs, or interface software she’ll need prior to traveling to ensure a complete and quality assignment, she adds.

“When a company hires me, they have specific contract requirements, so they let me know what I’ll need, because no matter where you go, there are always equipment issues,” she says.

CART providers, captioners, and court reporters who travel abroad to work also need to be aware of the official documents a country requires. Thomas says that some countries, such as Africa, require a visa in addition to a passport to enter the country. Before traveling to Africa, she was also required to have certain vaccinations to protect against disease. And although lead time between being hired for an assignment overseas and the actual travel dates is typically about two months, there are assignments that come up more quickly, and reporters need to act fast to ensure they have all the correct paperwork completed and medical requirements taken care of.

“When I traveled to Switzerland and Africa, I had about a 10-day lead time to prepare. My passport was in place so Switzerland was pretty easy to prepare for. However, with Africa, I needed to obtain a visa, and because of the short lead time, several of the vaccines I needed did not have time to take effect before I got there,” Thomas says. “You need to read up on the country where the assignment is and understand what the requirements are to work there, especially if it is an underdeveloped or third-world nation.”

Prior to her traveling to Dubai, Thomas says she studied the country’s customs and was prepared when she arrived, knowing that women have a different place in society in the UAE than women do in the United States and that some behavior by foreigners could be mistaken as aggressive behavior. She recommends that CART providers, captioners, and court reporters visit the U.S. State Department’s website before traveling abroad to learn the latest information about a country’s political climate, any travel advisories that might be issued for Americans, and about the nation’s cultural differences.

“Years ago I traveled on assignment to Mali, and it was fine. Today, however, with the political unrest there, I could not travel there to work. By comparison, you’ve got to figure that an international conference that includes attendees from more than 190 countries, like the one in Dubai, had to be held in a safe place,” Thomas says.

YOU WON’T GO IT ALONE

CART providers, captioners, and court reporters who travel overseas to work are often part of a larger team that can include several reporters and technical advisers.

“Whether you are the only reporter going on the assignment or whether there are several of you, there should always be technical support available on-site. You typically spend between 24 and 48 hours prior to the start of the assignment dealing with equipment setup and troubleshooting, as well as acclimating yourself to any time difference,” she notes. That means you may want to be compensated for days that are devoted to travel and/or technical setup, as well as days you’ll be writing. Though Thomas was the only CART provider on-site at the Dubai assignment, she says there were many CART providers stateside providing remote services to the simultaneous breakout sessions held during the conference. Given the time difference between the two countries, many of those CART providers ended up working in the middle of the night to cover the sessions, she says.

GETTING THE ASSIGNMENT

According to Thomas, professionals interested in working abroad should reach out to the numerous reporting and captioning companies that specialize in working with clients overseas and start by accepting international assignments that can be done remotely, as a way to develop a feel for the work, especially for the writing portion of the job.

Thomas also advises those seeking work abroad to make sure that the company hiring them is diligent in doing its homework when it comes to providing the necessary information about the assignment’s location, special equipment needs, official paperwork, and medical requirements.

In addition, Thomas cautions professionals who want to go the overseas route as independent contractors without the backing of a company, to be sure to understand that the information a company would normally supply them becomes their responsibility to find out.

“If you plan to take an assignment on your own, you need to understand that there is a lot of homework on your part. If you have never worked overseas before and will not be working for a company, I would caution that the job might be a red flag. Take the time to really think it through, and be sure you have access to all the information you need and know the questions to ask to ensure you will be safe and be able to produce quality work,” Thomas says.

“One of the most exciting things for me working an overseas assignment has been experiencing the different cultures of the countries I have traveled to. But I will say each time I come back home, I count my blessings, and realize how lucky I am to be a citizen of the United States.”