12 000 to 15 000 People Are Held Captive Every Year

Are you aware that up to 2,000 people around the world are currently being held against their will in one form or another? What’s worse, somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people are held captive every year for ransom or as hostages. The fact is, the 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 held captive and 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 when people are held captive 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 light of how many people are held captive each year, especially 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 decrease inactivity. 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

When considering the fact that anywhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people are held captive every year, kidnapping is a real risk. 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 however, someone is captured 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.’

John concludes,

‘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?

Here are some of the reasons why an adverse environments training program is beneficial to your organisation:

– 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 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;


For more information, Contact us at info@panopticsolutions.com

Secure Transport: How a Security Driver Increases Productivity for Executives

Secure Transport can be seen as a “nice to have” not a “need to have”. For many organisations, the return on investment for hiring a security driver for senior executives is judged to be high enough to justify the expense. One of the main reasons for this (though not the only one) is that transportation organised by a security company greatly increases the productivity of the executive and, in some cases, improves the results of the entire business trip.

Secure Transport: Increasing Productivity

With a security driver, executives are able to work en-route and prep for the core activities of the trip. Not only do they not need to drive, but they also do not need to think about any travel details like flight times, delays, routes, the timing between legs of the trip, and so on. In other words, in addition to time saved, a security driver allows the executives’ minds to remain fully focused on work throughout the trip. If you were to calculate how much the executive’s time is worth on an hourly basis, the cost of a security driver and executive protection is usually very easily justified.

Security personnel can also rely on tools that the ordinary traveller does not have access to.  For example, security personnel can coordinate with pilots (for those travelling on private aircraft) and airport staff in advance or in accordance with changes in travel plans. This benefit will usually take the stress out of travel even when unforeseen problems like delays and cancellations arise.

Another feature of the security driver is that, if they are executive protection trained, they greatly reduce security risks associated with travel. A travelling executive may be a target for harassment, theft, or harm if they are identified as either an easy target or a person of wealth. Criminals may identify these executives by what they wear, any expensive accruements and accessories, by how they carry themselves, or indeed if they are a well-known person.

Executive protection personnel reduces the risk of harm to these executives by being able to alter routines including pick up and drop off points, identify the safest routes and change them if necessary, or react appropriately in the event a threat becomes prevalent.  Executives will also enjoy the general comforts that come with VIP travel, which can also boost productivity, including Wi-Fi, snacks, and beverages.

A core part of the value proposition of a security driver for an executive is that their overall presence can help to increase the success of the trip.  For one, if the executive can spend travel time preparing for the upcoming meetings, it will improve the outcome of the trip as a whole.  But more importantly, travel details can often detract from the core purpose of the trip.

If, however, the executive is busy with travel details, hassles, and minor crises, he or she is presumably not in the optimal mental space for the core activities of a business trip.  A security driver allows the executive to focus on the results of the company and, leaving all travel and security details to someone else.

Australian Executive Protection specialists and Security & Risk Management Company, Panoptic Solutions, provides secure transport and drivers in Australia’s major cities including Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Gold Coast as well as throughout the Asia Pacific region. For more information about the secure transport options we are able to provide, email our team at info@panopticsolutions.com, submit an enquiry through our website here or call +61 1300 651 407

Getting the Edge on Life – Interview with Rhys Dowden

Can mindset really help travellers and security operatives respond safely to uncertain circumstances? This post summarises a podcast interview with former Australian Special Forces soldier and hostile environment security expert, Rhys Dowden, about the benefits of a prepared mindset. He explains his holistic approach to confidence in any situation and his tips for getting the edge on life.

Rhys has a wealth of experience in the security sector including a role as executive protection operative to Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter. He’s a Ronin South Africa graduate and holds a post-graduate certificate in security management. Rhys is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, a helicopter pilot, and now uses his expertise to help his clients get an edge on life with a strong mindset developed through mental conditioning.

Types of Travellers Explained

There are two types of travellers – those who are prepared and those who aren’t. Those who aren’t prepared are the ones who get to the check-in counter and seem to forget why they’re even there. Or those who forget to take their belt off though they’ve been through the X-ray machines at least 50 times before, and hold up the whole line.

There are also those travellers who go to a volatile country like South Africa without any real incident. And because they’ve travelled safely, think they’re good to go to other volatile countries. Unfortunately, they can find themselves in potentially dangerous situations without a clue how to react. This could be a layperson, business traveller, or even someone in the security contract field who’s managed to get this far relying on luck. Whoever it is, the reality is that the more prepared you are, the better position you’re in when facing a tricky travel situation and getting an edge on life.

The Preparation Mindset

Preparation says Rhys is the key to success in any tricky situation. In his business, Operator Edge, he helps people tackle all kinds of challenges through developing a state of preparedness, both mentally and physically. So, whether they’re hoping to go into special forces or they’re just looking to hit some big hairy audacious goals, Rhys helps them build confidence to the point where they feel like they can go after whatever they want, confident of success.

Rhys goes on to explain that the crucial element is the ability to plan out their mission, adapt, and overcome adversity. The difference between those who bounce back from setbacks and push forward with drive and discipline, and those that stumble and fall, is their mindset.

Mission Planning Puts You in Control

Rhys says that when it comes to travel, whether you’re a layperson or security operative, the first and most important element is mission planning. Mission planning means anticipating situations that could go wrong and planning the processes you can action if setbacks do happen.

‘Whatever the task, whatever the goal, the more you plan that mission down to the nth degree, the more likely that mission is going to go the way you want.’

For example, make sure you have all your documents, visas, and timings planned out, and that you know the procedures you must go through in different countries. Travelling can be tiring and tough. If a difficult situation occurs and you’re not prepared for it, it can have a knock-on effect. However, if you’ve anticipated the problem and have a pre-planned response to it, you’ll be far less emotional and better able to deal with it successfully, moving forward with less disruption.

‘The advantage is that if and when things go wrong, you’re okay because you’ve already thought about it and you’re in the right mindset to get over it. Being out of your comfort zone and being in a situation where you don’t have full control is okay because you know you’re going to get through it.’

When you travel, there are moments when you find yourself out of your comfort zone. You might be in a line that goes all the way around the airport. Or, you might be faced with a confrontation where your physical well-being is at risk. The thing is, the body reacts to stress the same way. But when you’ve planned your trip and thought through all eventualities, you won’t have such an extreme stress response if you do get challenged, since you’ve already put in processes to get around that roadblock. That is another technique that will help you get a better edge on life.

Rhys explains how, in stressful situations, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in to get your body ready for fight or flight. Your heart rate increases, your blood starts flowing to your big systems and muscle groups, and your frontal lobe can effectively switch off. (This is where cognitive thinking happens, like focusing and processing.)

Being ready, focused, and situationally aware of what could happen in advance is the key to overriding the body’s stress response. You’re more able to control your body and therefore think through the situation because you’re in the right mindset and you’re prepared.

Of course, there are plenty of situations and contingencies that we may not be aware of or able to plan for, and Rhys goes on to explain the kind of preparation we can put in place for any uncertain events.

Tip #1 – Breathing

The easiest and probably the most important thing you can do to prepare for anything is a simple breathing exercise. Breathing right into your diaphragm, nice and slow, taking 15 or so seconds to go through a breathing cycle, will enact your parasympathetic nervous system. This is your rest and digest system that works to bring your body back to homeostasis (balance). By doing this exercise and filling your body with as much oxygen as possible, you will think and process better and quicker and therefore be more able to react the way you want to.

Tip #2 – Creating Your Winning Environment

Rhys talks to his clients about conditioning the mind to be tougher and creating a winning environment by controlling what you can control as a way of getting an edge on life. These might be practices like getting up in the morning for exercise, making sure your house is tidy before you leave for work, or making sure that you’re presentable. All these things build a platform for success.

‘If you always win, you’re always winning. It’s very hard to be lazy and then expect to be tough enough to turn up to a selection course like Special Forces and get through it. Toughness starts from the little things that you do every day consistently over time.’

Tip #3 – The Big Four

The Navy SEAL technique to conquering fear and panic, known as The Big 4, cites the keys of mental toughness as goal setting, visualisation, arousal/breathing control, and self-talk.

In the case of travel, this would mean planning your trip, visualising your journey, playing out in your mind what could go wrong and how you could positively respond in any given situation. Faced with that stressful situation and your sympathetic nervous system kicking in, you’re prepared to enact the breathing routine which helps your body come down off that stressful high and allows your frontal lobe to switch back on so you can think through the situation.

Self-talk is a huge part of mental toughness. Rhys points out that we say anywhere from a hundred to a couple of hundred words a minute to ourselves, and if that’s negative self-talk, it prompts a physical reaction in our body.

‘Start positive self-talk by talking to yourself into the situation, how you’re going to respond, how you’re going to react, and how you’re going to get through it.’

Tip #4 – Nutrition

Your nutrition has to be on point, especially if you’re expected to be switched on, looking after someone in an executive protection role. Many people refer to the gut as the second brain (80 to 90% of your serotonin levels – your feel-good hormones – are produced in the gut). So, it makes sense that what you eat has a direct result on your mood and mental state. If you’re eating badly and drinking a lot of alcohol, you’re going to disrupt the microbiome in your gut and that will have a flow-on effect on how you feel.

Tip #5 – Rest, Recovery, Relaxation

Training hard builds your physical stamina and also sets off your parasympathetic nervous system which destresses you, and you need good rest and recovery after such activity. And let’s not forget that in order to get the edge on life, your mind has to switch off and reboot too.

Rhys recommends taking up an activity that allows you to totally switch off from your stressors. For him, it’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Unlike many types of exercise, such as running, for example, combat sport doesn’t allow you to think about anything else other than self-preservation. You’re totally engrossed at the moment, and the positive benefit is that it allows your mind to switch off.

A Holistic Approach to Planning Travel Assures the Best Results

In regards to an executive protection role, Rhys suggests that if you want to be at the top of your game and get an edge on life, you need to focus on all 5 key elements.

‘Nobody wants someone protecting them who’s really fit and trains hard, has their nutrition on point with 8% body fat, but can’t deal with stressful situations; can’t think straight when things go wrong. You really should be thinking about mental toughness or mindset development in a holistic way.’

Rhys puts his military background to good use, not just for people in the security and risk field, but people wanting to achieve their goals. For example, for anyone petrified of speaking publicly or asserting themselves generally, putting these processes in place will completely transform their experience.

‘Planning out your ‘mission’, practising your material, visualising yourself getting through the talk, breathing deeply (especially for a few minutes before speaking), and conducting positive self-talk will really prepare you for dealing with any situation. Remember, create that winning environment, and you’ll always be winning.’


Who Needs a Bodyguard and How Do You Hire One? – Part 2

Last week we published a blog post, Who Needs a Bodyguard and How Do You Hire One? – Part 1,  and podcast episode outlining the ins and outs of hiring a bodyguard or executive protection agent. In the second and final part of the series, we dive deeper to answer the question of who needs a bodyguard and how do you hire one?

We will consider the medical aspects of an engagement, the importance of local knowledge, some of the contractual details, and what should happen before an engagement commences (which you can listen to here or keep reading).

At the end of this post, you can also find a link to a free guide – How to Hire an Executive Protection Agent – that answers the questions in more detail. The guide also includes a cheat sheet with 37 questions you should ask before hiring a provider.

Should We Look For a Medical Capability in Our Executive Protection Team?

Many clients neglect to consider this, however, at the end of the day, the risk is a risk, no matter how it presents itself. The risk from injury or illness should be a consideration when thinking about who needs a bodyguard, is planning travel, conducting a risk assessment, or planning an executive protection operation. Every team should have a dedicated medic within it. The risk will dictate the level of medical support required and will range from basic first aid to a paramedic or even specific team members with pediatric medical training if the principals include children.

Be aware that there is a significant difference in the level of training and the capability between a basic level of first aid and that of an EMT (emergency medical technician) and then again that of a paramedic. In the event that a client or principal has previous significant medical comorbidities or conditions, it would be strongly advised to consider the higher clinical skill set of either a capable EMT or a paramedic where available.

What Other Threats Will an Executive Protection Agent Need to Consider When Working With a Client?

Clients primarily, and rightly so, think of the physical threats when looking for an executive protection operative, however, there is much more to the role than that.

In some cases, it literally means protecting the principal client from themselves. VIPs are like anyone and can occasionally make decisions that put themselves or their public image at risk. If they are high profile, they are even more exposed as others may well be watching or even stalking them (i.e. paparazzi) looking for them to slip up.

A professional agent will be on the lookout for such risks and discretely step in and make a recommendation to the client that may avoid pending trouble.

How Important Is Local Knowledge for an Executive Protection Agent?

Local knowledge is critical. Executives or a VIP who needs a bodyguard will often travel with their core security team but this should always be supplemented with someone with local knowledge where possible.

As mentioned in our previous post, most providers will team up with a local partner as required. If your prospective provider says they can service you anywhere in the world without local partners you’d best be wary of them as the service will likely be a compromise.

What Are the Typical Insurance Requirements for an Executive Protection Agent?

Most providers will have public liability and professional indemnity insurance that covers their activities. Usually, they will also provide travel insurance for their operatives.

If the provider is also providing medical services, it’s prudent to ensure they have medical indemnity cover for this as well.

What Agreements Should We Enter Into With an Executive Protection Agent?

In most cases, you should ask the provider to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that covers the provider and their personnel. If you don’t have a corporate NDA, your provider will be able to supply one that suits the project.

In addition, it’s always a good idea to put together an agreed Scope of Works document. The scope of works should spell out the tasks and any assets (personnel and vehicles, etc) that are included.

What Do We Need to Know About Firearms in Relation to Executive Protection?

The use of firearms for security details is location-dependent. In some countries, such as Australia or the UK, it’s illegal for operatives to carry firearms whereas, in the USA, it’s legal and commonplace for operatives to carry them.

When we are travelling to a country where it might be legal to carry firearms, if required, we will partner with or hire local operatives that have the necessary licences and experience to do so. This sometimes means hiring off-duty police officers as part of the team.

Either way, be guided by your provider in relation to this.

On What Basis Does an Executive Protection Agent Set Their Fees?

Providers have to factor in a huge range of variables to work out their executive protection and risk management fees. These can include location, time, the complexity of the task(s), assets required, level of threat involved (perceived or otherwise), type of client(s), whether or not family protection is involved, and much more.

In some cases, the service provided may be quite standard and be subject to a standard price whereas in others the price may be calculated on a bespoke basis.

Another critical factor is timing. Different businesses have different protocols but in our case, we run on a three-tiered system – is it critical (12 hours notice), is it urgent (1-3 days notice), or is it routine (4 days notice or more)? The fees for these vary accordingly.

Be cautious about selecting your provider based on cost though. A lower-cost provider may well be lower-cost for a reason. They may not have the experience or even the confidence to match your other prospects so might be pricing themselves accordingly.

Should I Meet the Team Before Operations Are Underway?

Where possible, a provider will introduce you to the security team in advance but this may not always be feasible due to other project commitments. In these cases, you could ask for bios of the team members for review.

At the end of the day though, it’s best to trust the executive protection provider to assemble the team to meet your needs.

What Kind of Preparation Do Clients Need to Undergo for an Executive Protection Operation?

While having a security detail might sound ‘easy,’ it actually takes a bit of getting used to. Even for someone who needs a bodyguard, and is aware of it, there may be some adjustments needed when working with a new team.

In most cases, a simple briefing of the principal client at the beginning of an operation will do. During the briefing, the team may be introduced and some basic protocols will be shared. The team members will have additional protocols or ‘actions on’ but the client will not need to know most of these.

The most important things for the client to know are what will happen if a threat occurs.

In some cases, more detailed preparation may be needed. This might include ‘contact drills’ or a rehearsal of vehicle switching but this is usually only for high-risk situations or high profile individuals.

Conclusion and Free Guide

There is more to executive protection than you might expect and, for the uninitiated, you can easily make mistakes when sourcing a close protection provider. To help you figure out who needs a bodyguard, and how to find the right one, we’ve produced a comprehensive guide – How to Hire an Executive Protection Agent. It includes a cheat sheet with 37 questions you should ask before hiring a provider. Enter your details below to access the guide.

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And of course, if you are seeking a provider or even just want to have your risk assessed, please contact us at Panoptic Solutions. We’d be glad for the opportunity to discuss this with you and, even if we aren’t a suitable provider for you, we will be able to make recommendations or assist you with finding someone.