Are you aware that up to 2,000 people around the world are currently being held against their will in one form or another? Or that somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people a year are kidnapped for ransom or held hostage? The fact is, risk is ever present whoever and wherever you are, and being prepared to deal with a situation like detainment, kidnapping or surviving captivity can never be a bad thing. Luckily, there are organisations that provide training for these eventualities and today we chat with a course instructor from the adverse environments team at Panoptic Solutions about the kinds of strategies he recommends. You can read below for a written summary or listen to the discussion on the Wheels Up Podcast here.
Everyone is at risk of captivity
We’ve discussed the risks faced by journalists travelling overseas in previous podcasts and posts and clearly the wealthy are often targets too. But all kinds of people are taken hostage for all kinds of reasons. Charity workers in the Philippines have been kidnapped for example, as have other innocents who, it’s assumed by their captors, will be recovered by their governments. Tragically, as we saw with Canadian national Robert Hall in 2016, governments don’t always come to their aid.
Also consider the growing number of incidents where everyday citizens get embroiled in perilous situations, like the siege in Sydney’s Lindt Cafe in 2014. If they were asked before that day, ‘Do you think you’ll ever be involved in a hostage situation?’, not one would have said yes. The news is full of stories of robberies gone wrong and home invasions involving everyday folk being held against their will. That’s why these safety skills and strategies are applicable to everyone.
Training courses that help
Panoptic Solutions’ training courses teach all kinds of people how to recognise the risks and realities of hostage situations. Instructors come from elite military, paramedical and specialist law enforcement backgrounds but the training is not physical – it’s about creating awareness as course instructor John (not his real name) explains:
‘Let me first say, the course is definitely not military-style training. The information is presented in a lecture style set-up and participants need not worry they’re going to walk in the door and find themselves tied up in the corner being yelled at.’
John discusses the differences between being illegally kidnapped for ransom or held hostage (where you’re a captive) versus being pulled over by the police for speeding and legally taken to the station (where you’re a detainee). If you’re overseas and you break the law, wittingly or unwittingly, you may face a period of confinement and that’s a situation you can be prepared for. Importantly, John’s course includes strategies that help participants avoid those situations in the first place.
‘We provide context, contemporary examples and explanations of what went right and wrong, working to increase people’s understanding of the world situation and domestically. Prevention is better than cure and our purpose is to help participants avoid trouble in the first place, particularly when travelling overseas. If we can deliver that, we’ve done our job.’
During training sessions, participants get to interact, ask questions and bring their own experiences to the table.
‘People are genuinely surprised at the odds when we lay them out. Though we try not to bombard people with statistics, we do give them enough to get their headspace right and to look at the world a little bit differently without them becoming paranoid. We don’t want people walking around questioning every strange thing that happens! The most common feedback statement we get is, “Wow. I’m surprised – I hadn’t realised that.”’
Developing situational awareness
One key strategy the course emphasises is developing situational awareness. We recently spoke to Dr. Gav Schneider about this important skill because most of us really aren’t situationally aware. For example, if you were asked to remember the make, model and colour of the last car you parked next to, chances are, you’d draw a blank. Or if you had to give a physical description of the person who served your morning coffee, unless you were a regular, you’d have no idea. Taking in that kind of detail, particularly when travelling, will give you a far better chance of avoiding trouble.
John also stresses the importance of ‘decreasing your footprint’ which means lowering your profile, blending into your environment, trying not to stand out. His advice is not to carry a bright bag or wear a multi-coloured shirt and shorts like a typical tourist. He suggests thinking carefully about wearing jewellery or even a modestly priced watch. In some countries, they could be seen as flaunting your wealth and make you a target.
Preparation is key
This kind of thinking applies to everyone, but particularly if you’re working with a client as part of an executive protection (EP) unit, doing prior preparation is essential. Conduct a risk assessment and see if the client is at risk of kidnap and if so, how you’re going to mitigate this. It might include creating alternate routes or increasing the numbers within the EP team. In high risk cases, you might even organise a counter-attack team or law enforcement as an add-on.
‘If we get into a volatile situation in a hostile region, we look for combat indicators which might include a decrease in activity. This is where a busy area suddenly has nothing going on, or people start to avoid eye contact. If you’re escorting a journalist, for instance, somewhere like Syria or Iraq and driving into a town you see the shutters going down, you’d start thinking something’s up. The spidey sense is tingling, and you get that gut feeling that something’s not right. It doesn’t just happen in the movies. It happens in real life.’
In the event of capture
In the unfortunate event that someone is captured, depending on who captures them and if they’re considered a valuable commodity, they may be taken care of. Of course, the extent of this could range from being kept in very good conditions to those that are just enough to keep them alive. If someone captures you not for ransom so much as propaganda or they’re simply deranged, then it can be very different, and that’s where you must make an assessment of what you’re up against. This is usually based on technical information.
‘During training, we talk about rescue and recovery of hostages. One of our instructors spent many years in a counter-terrorism unit and has a vast amount of experience and knowledge in hostage recovery. He discusses this at length.
His presentation covers, in comprehensive detail, what you can expect if a rescue or recovery goes through. For example, there is always, potentially, something going on behind the scenes you don’t know about, so don’t give up. We impress upon people the importance of maintaining a positive mental attitude throughout all phases. You need to be mentally positive to maintain your morale.’
‘People who‘ve spent some time in confinement have very little situational awareness. The next thing they know, there’s shouting, gunfire and things can get confused. In that part of the presentation the information is kept very clear. Participants are told exactly what they must and must not do so as not to jeopardise the rescue. No one’s ever prepared to be kidnapped, detained or taken as a hostage but knowing what may occur – the noises you may hear, the commands you may be given, the actions you might need to take – will help you be prepared as you can be.’
‘The bottom line is, do your research. Everything we present on the course is information that’s already out there, and there’s a strong smattering of common sense. But there’s a large degree of complacency and it’s amazing the number of people who travel overseas and don’t consult anything – not even Lonely Planet or resources like DFAT’s smart travel website. We make sure we equip our course participants with information that can save their life.’
Interested in having the adverse environments training team deliver a program at your workplace?
– Our Adverse Environments training could save lives in your business.
– Run by former special forces and specialist military personnel
– Awareness training for anyone who travels or work within the media field, etc
– Workplace health and safety consideration for those working in the field
– Real world experience and training which may keep you safe
– Real life situations and cases
– Non physical
– Done at your workplace or at a venue close by
– 2-3 hours in duration
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org