DNA swabs and portable morgues: on-call for disasters with Kenyon International

Bracknell, ENGLAND (Reuters) - Boxes of DNA swabs, walkie talkies, portable morgue tables and medical gloves fill the shelves at the warehouse from which UK-based Kenyon International rushes to respond to disasters from plane crashes to earthquakes.

A member of staff of Kenyon International Emergency Services, looks at emergency supplies ready for deployment at the company's UK headquarters in Bracknell, in southern England, March 10, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

It’s not appealing work, admits CEO and part-owner Robert Jensen, a former U.S. army mortuary affairs specialist.

But companies and governments are increasingly recognizing its importance, with disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2010 Haiti earthquake showing how public anger can flare in the wake of a crisis that is poorly managed.

“Now what happens? That’s where success is (for the disaster management business),” Jensen said in interview at Kenyon’s warehouse in Bracknell, 40 miles west of London.

“We don’t have the ability to make it better ... the only thing we can do is not make it worse,” he added, surrounded by photographs of belongings that Kenyon works to return to grieving families, such as wedding rings and camera memory cards.

Last year was particularly busy. So much so that Kenyon, which has over 500 clients, stopped taking new ones for a while.

The company was involved after Germanwings flight 9525 crashed into a French mountainside last March, and after a gun attack on tourists at a Tunisian beach resort in June.

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About three-quarters of its customers are airlines, including Lufthansa and British Airways, plus governments, local authorities and companies in the maritime, rail and natural resources sectors.

Clients pay an annual retainer of anything between 2,000 pounds and 40,000 pounds ($57,500) to have Kenyon International Emergency Services on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

“It’s a cost, but to me it’s a cost of doing business if you’re a train company, an airline, a hotel operator,” Jensen said.

Kenyon’s people are poised to fly to a disaster site within hours, getting behind the yellow tape to recover items, set up centers to care for relatives, and help companies respond sensitively. It has 27 full-time staff plus 1,600 team members available to work when a crisis occurs, and says there are few if any private firms offering a comparable service.

Its history dates back to 1906 when the Kenyon brothers, as funeral directors, attended the site of a train crash in southern England which killed 28 people, many of whom were American, and whose bodies they repatriated.

In 1929, Kenyon dealt with its first plane crash in England. Today it operates globally with offices in Houston, Beirut and the Dominican Republic.

Jensen declined to comment on Kenyon’s revenues. Client bills for disaster response can run into the millions, but the company refuses to assist an airline that is not already a client when disaster strikes, so-called ambulance chasing.

“For airlines: no contract, no response,” Jensen said.

Malaysia Airlines was not a client, so Kenyon was not involved in responding to the disappearance of Flight MH370 in March 2014.

Given the high-stress situations in which he works with companies, Jensen is selective with customers.

“When you look at how people (companies) treat people, that kind of gives you an idea of the kind of people you want to work with,” he said.

Reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Mark Potter