Situational Awareness: Practical Application

IMG_0515

As anyone who has read any of our articles or books knows already knows we place a high premium on developing and using situational awareness as an integral component of personal security.  In fact if you were to do only one thing to make yourself safer – and nothing else – it would be to develop and employ situational awareness.

Still many people struggle with this for a variety of reasons.  In some cases it is because they have not received proper training on it before:  they are told to be alert to aware of their surroundings but are not told how to do this or they have been told its “common sense”.  Others equate situational awareness with hyper vigilance.  I addressed that question previously here: https://protectiveconcepts.wordpress.com/2015/12/03/situational-awareness-and-the-danger-of-hypervigilance/.    Another problem is dismissing the concept of Coopers Colors based on a very strict understanding of the color code.  One instructor discusses his dislike of Cooper’s Colors as a method here:  http://www.personaldefensenetwork.com/article/the-myth-of-situational-awareness/.  While he makes some interesting points I strongly disagree with what he says – his position only aligns with a very rigid interpretation of the color code.  Further the notion that situational awareness is not useful is ridiculous.

I believe that Coopers Colors is a guide to follow – not a rigid doctrine.  The four main colors that are used – White, Yellow, Orange and Red – form a framework for us to gauge awareness.  In reality there are sublevels or gradations within those colors in my opinion.  You might be in a low Condition Yellow or a high Condition Yellow as an example.  While you should not be in Condition White in public places as a general rule, you may be in Condition Yellow and move momentarily into Condition White for a moment while you look at a map, answer your phone, etc.  I think that is normal and fine as you are not walking around in Condition White for an extended period of time.  You should be positioning yourself in a more protected position to do those activities – i.e. stepping into a doorway to look at the map.  You are not lingering in Condition White – you go into it and come back out quickly.  Throughout the day you should mainly be in Condition Yellow which is a relaxed state of awareness.  You will likely shift briefly to Condition Orange from time to time – either due to some outside stimulus / observation that you make such as seeing a person exhibiting behavior that causes you some concern or because you are entering a perceived danger area or transition area where you know you should be more alert due to the increased potential threat.  You may drop briefly into Condition White while looking at a menu in a restaurant or taking a phone call.  This is only a brief interruption and only after assessing your environment and assuming a more protected position.  This is very doable and a very easy way to live your life.

How do you apply it?  There are a number of ways to begin introduce situational awareness behavior:

Establish Baselines:  It’s important to understand the baseline or pattern of normal activity for a given environment or location.  This baseline may change based on the hour of day and day of the week.  By establishing a baseline you determine what type of behavior is normal in that environment at that given time.  This allows you to detect behavior which is not normal (an aberration or anomaly) as well as the absence of normal behavior or activity.

Watch People:  Pay attention to people in your environment and learn to assess them rapidly.  We will look more at what constitutes suspicious behavior and other indicators of danger at another time.  We previously discussed some elements of it here: https://wordpress.com/stats/post/269/protectiveconcepts.wordpress.com

Look for Exits:  Train yourself to identify exits whenever you enter a room, building, public transportation, etc.

Recognize Points Where You Need to Raise Your Awareness: Recognize that arrivals, departures, choke points and danger areas are all situations where you need to be more alert to potential threats.

Eliminate Distractions:  This means moderating your smart phone, tablet, ear buds, etc. use in public areas in order to better focus on your surroundings.  For many people this takes real discipline.

You can condition yourself to be aware of your environment – specifically potential threats in your environment – in much the same way.  It takes some deliberate effort – especially at first but it is a worthwhile endeavor.  It doesn’t require hyper vigilance or rigid adherence to a strict interpretation of Coopers Colors.   With practice and a good understanding of how to employ it, situational awareness can be a habit that you use daily to keep yourself safe.

Advertisements

Kidnapping Avoidance & Prevention

Kidnapping_Avoidance_Cover_for_Kindle (2)

Protective Concepts is pleased to announce the release of  the new book Kidnapping Avoidance & Prevention.  Originally planned for first or second quarter 2013 it got a bit delayed but is now available as a Kindle E-book.  A paperback version of the book is in production and should be available in January 2014.  Please see a brief description below:

A confused tourist gets into the wrong taxi and is expressed kidnapped. A businessman is lured to a bogus meeting and held for ransom. An expatriate consultant is kidnapped after being stopped at an impromptu roadblock. A journalist goes for an interview that turns horribly wrong. A bank manager’s family is held hostage to force him to access bank funds.Kidnapping is a pervasive crime that takes many forms around the world. Kidnapping Avoidance & Prevention will help you understand the different types of kidnappings, how they occur and how to identify ways you can better protect yourself, your family and your personnel.

In this book you will learn:

• About different types of kidnappings
• How kidnappers select their victims and the process and methods they use
• How to assess your vulnerability
• How to recognize potential ruses and traps
• How to limit information about yourself and your movements
• How to recognize surveillance and other pre-incident activity
• How to use OPSEC principles to protect yourself
• How to use force multipliers to mitigate risk
• Where to find additional resources

Kidnapping Avoidance & Prevention doesn’t discuss hostage survival or how to handle a kidnapping event; rather it concentrates on proactive measures that can be used to reduce the risk of becoming a victim of a kidnapping.

Some additional administrative notes:  The Kindle E-Book version sells for $4.99 USD.   The paperback version when it becomes available will sell for around $14.00 USD.  The original formatting was done for the paperback version so there may be some awkward sections in the E-Book version depending on the particular reader you are using.  Regardless any version should be completely readable.
Questions and comments are welcome and should be emailed to integratedprotectiveconcepts@gmail.com.

Probability: Looking at Likelihood When Assessing Personal Risk

116_1693

There is a tendency to be drawn to the more exotic, spectacular or exciting threats when considering personal risk rather than the more likely but more mundane threats.  In many parts of the developing world your greatest risk is a vehicle accident.  Poorly maintained vehicles, lack or total absence of professional driver training and licensing, bad roads and sometimes a lackadaisical attitude towards safety in general make this a real concern many places.  This is often compounded in places where modern medical care is severely lacking and all but the most minor medical issues require evacuation.  In an environment like this injuries sustained in a traffic accident that might be very manageable elsewhere in the world can be fatal.

While conducting a recent threat assessment in East Africa following the Westgate Mall attack, it was difficult to get the consumers of the report to appreciate the full spectrum of threat that exists apart from terrorism.  Yes, terrorism is a very real concern and the relative success of the Westgate attack (a low tech attack using limited numbers that produced high casualties and went on for days capturing worldwide media attention) may encourage further, similar actions.  Any further attacks will likely occur at soft targets where visitors and expatriates are likely to be such as hotels, transit hubs, shopping venues and so forth.  That said, Nairobi is a city racked by violent crime and for the average visitor or resident this is a much greater risk than terrorism.  There is a much greater chance of being carjacked, and possibly murdered in the process than there is of being present during a terrorist attack.

When assessing your personal risk in a particular location and perhaps basing whether or not you will go or what mitigation measures you will put in place, it’s important to consider the full threat spectrum and consider the likelihood or probability of each type of threat so that you don’t get so caught up with the more spectacular threat that is receiving massive coverage on CNN that you ignore the more probable threats that might be right in front of you.

A Tiger Kidnapping in Connecticut and Defining an “At-Risk” Person

Fairfield Heist

At about 9pm on April 11, 2013 a group of 5 men forced their way into an apartment in Meriden, Connecticut in the Northeastern US and overpowered and restrained four people inside.  The apartment was reportedly company-rented and used by employees of Lenox Jewelers in Fairfield who frequently transited between that store and another store in neighboring Massachusetts.  Reports indicate that two employees of the store were likely followed after closing at 8pm and were initially targeted as stepped from their vehicle.  They were then forced into the apartment where the other two employees were.  They bound them and blindfolded them with pillow cases.  Then they separated the employees with four of the assailants taking two of the jewelry store employees back to the store while the fifth man remained at the apartment to guard the other two employees.  When they got to the store they forced the two employees to disarm the security system and stole approximately $5million in jewels.  They then left the two employees bound in the store and notified their accomplice guarding the other two in the apartment.  Upon receiving word the heist was successful he left the remaining two employees bound in the apartment.   Five men were arrested weeks after the robbery and are awaiting trial.

While most tiger kidnappings tend to involve holding family members or other loved ones hostage to force a person with special access to comply in this particular case it involved holding co-workers hostage.  This crime has been prevalent in Ireland and the UK but less so in the US.

This incident raises two interesting points – one about the presence of pre-incident indicators and the second about who is an “at-risk” person.

When the robbers were escorting the two store employees back to the store they made a comment to one that he “drives too fast” indicating that they likely had him under surveillance for a period of time prior to the incident.  Additionally a neighbor at the apartment complex observed and noted the kidnappers’ car conducting surveillance on the morning of March 30.  The neighbor noted the car’s plate number and gave it to the police after the incident which contributed to the arrest of the suspects.  This means that (1) the surveillance was occurring at least 11 days prior to the crime and probably even earlier (2) the surveillance activity was noticeable to someone who was paying attention to the environment.  Interestingly in an unrelated case in a New York City suburb law enforcement was conducting surveillance outside the home of a suspected drug dealer and were detected by neighbors.  Local residents noticed a car with occupants sitting on a quiet suburban street and questioned them what they were doing there.  This incident illustrates that even professional surveillance efforts can be detected if people pay attention to their surroundings.

We often discuss that key times for heightening alertness include arrivals and departures (especially from home and work) and locations/zones of predictability.  We also state that security measures should be scalable and in context with the person’s risk profile.  Therefore a person who believes he or she may be facing a demonstrable threat or is working/living in a high threat environment should devote more time and effort to practicing individual protective measures.  A person at less risk should still be aware but may not need to expend a great deal of effort.

In this case it’s likely the jewelry store employees who became victims did not consider themselves to be “at-risk”.  While they probably recognized the risk of robbery as a professional hazard they likely thought of it in the context of a classic armed robbery at the place of business and not a tiger kidnapping involving elaborate planning.  It’s important when considering your risk profile to accurately assess the potential threats you may face and the vulnerabilities in your lifestyle.  Without an honest appreciation of these it’s difficult to determine the level of mitigation and countermeasures you need to put in place.  You don’t need to be a millionaire, a celebrity or a politician to be “at-risk”.  A variety of factors in your professional and or personal life can raise your profile.

 

 

Dangerous Business

Hole - Peter Shaw

 

If you do business in an international environment then chances are you deal with a wide range of people with different ideas about acceptable business practices, business ethics, conflict resolution and competition.  While some of these people may hold views very similar to yours many others may have a different perspective.   Generally speaking the further you go off the beaten path the more pronounced these differences may be.

Whether you are aware of it or not you may run afoul of one of these people.  Either by posing competition to their business, refusing to pay bribes or engage in corruption, by choosing or failing to choose a certain vendor or business partner.  In many places members of the police, military and security forces also have private sector business interest and can present a formidable threat if you find yourself in a business dispute with them.

Consider the story of Peter Shaw, a Welsh banker working for the European Commission in Tbilisi, Georgia.  Shaw was in Georgia providing consulting to the Georgian banking sector.  In June 2002, just days before he was supposed to complete his assignment and leave Georgia, Shaw was kidnapped off a Tbilisi street by heavily armed attackers in paramilitary uniforms.  He was then held captive for five months, four of them in a subterranean cell in the Pankisi Gorge under deplorable conditions, the details of which he recounts in his book Hole: Kidnapped in Georgia.  While it was never conclusively proven that his kidnapping was related to his work in banking there were strong indications that it was.  It’s possible that Shaw’s work to improve the Georgian banking sector put him at odds with powerful people who were using the financial system for their own enrichment.

While Shaw’s case is an extreme example, it’s important to be aware of potential pitfalls that may exist in the country or countries where you are conducting business.   How do you counteract this risk?  It’s difficult but due diligence on potential partners and associates and a thorough assessment of the business sector in that country is one initial step you can take.  Knowing who the key players are and what businesses they are in is a good beginning.  Another is a simple awareness of the threat and practicing good personal security measures and operational security.

 

Travel Security: Keeping it in Perspective – Part 2

110_1054

Continuing with the theme of keeping travel security in perspective that we introduced in the last article I’d like to stress again the need to keep a realistic and practical view of your personal security when traveling overseas and to avoid alarmist perceptions that often follow incidents like the Sarai Sierra case and the sexual assault of the Swiss tourist.   Of course it’s equally important to avoid the rose-colored glasses and happy complacency exhibited by some other travelers who may have engaged in risky behavior and done foolish things yet got through it unscathed and then proceed to tell everyone who will listen how safe it is and how important it is not to be paranoid.

So how do we find the middle ground and get as realistic as possible an idea of the risks of travel to a particular place?  The first is by conducting open source research on your destination.  Corporations and their business travelers can usually access subscription services that specialize in providing travel security information.  They also have access to organizations like the US State Department’s overseas Security Advisory Council that provide guidance to the business community.  Individual travelers don’t usually have access to these resources so we will look at more available methods.  One place to begin is government issued travel advice.  For US travelers that can be found at www.travel.state.gov .   Other nations also publish travel advice as well.  The UK Foreign office information can be found here: http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice-by-country; Australia’s is here: http://www.smartraveller.gov.au ; Canada’s is here: http://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories .  By looking at several different nations travel guidance for the same location you can begin to piece together common themes and trends relating to personal security.

One thing that is important to keep in mind when reviewing travel security advise for a location – whether the advice is coming from a government agency or a private sector provider-  is that most of this advice is written for a wide audience.  That means the guidance is written for the backpacker to the business traveler and everyone in between even though their individual risk profiles may vary greatly.  This is why context is so important.  For example there may be a problem with buses being hijacked en route between towns in the country where you will be traveling.  Maybe the hijackers typically take the passengers off the bus and rob them and sometimes there may be gratuitous violence even when the criminals’ demands are met.  While that is a serious security concern in a general sense and may be very relevant to a backpacker or budget traveler if you are planning a business trip to the capital city of that country, will spend the entire time either in your hotel, at meetings or at dinner and you will not be traveling in rural areas, going from town to town or using the bus it may not be particularly significant for you.

When reading travel advice please keep the notion of context in mind.  Using the above example of the business trip to the capital city imagine there is also a significant problem with taxi-related crime in that city.  In particular there is a problem with the robbery or express kidnapping of travelers arriving at the capital city’s airport.  In that case it might be very relevant to your business trip and a risk that needs to be mitigated.  You might for example mitigate this risk by arranging for transportation from a known company in advance and establish recognition protocols with the driver (not just a sign with your name on it).

After reviewing several different reports from different governments you should have an idea of crime trends and similar security issues at the location in question.  You can pursue this further by conducting internet searches on key words at various news websites to pull up accounts of specific crimes and so forth.  This may also provide you more detail and help you to understand common modus operandi.  Keep in mind however that in many locations crimes go unreported or don’t appear in the press.

You can also look at various travel websites and forums and see what other travelers and expatriates say about a particular location.  CAUTION:  It’s very important to use critical thinking when reading or listening to anecdotal accounts from other travelers.  There is a great deal of misinformation out there and nothing should be taken at face value.  That said this can be a way of building on what you already know.  This is especially if you come across recurring themes.

How much effort should you devote to this research?  It should largely be dictated by the place you are going to and the circumstances of your trip.  A solo female traveler hiking or cycling through Latin America for three months should devote much more time than two business travelers going to Paris for two days.  As you begin your research it may also become evident that you need to go further to clarify or de-conflict information that you are finding.

Additionally you should go more in depth with this research when it comes to selecting accommodations, modes of travel and other aspects of your trip.  The more you know and the more you plan the less likely you are to encounter a problem and the better you’ll deal with a problem if one should arise.

The important aspect is to maintain perspective when considering security facets of your travel.  Understand what threats exist and look at them in the context of your trip.  Don’t become unduly afraid of things that don’t pose a real risk to you and don’t be complacent or blind to things that do.

Travel Security: Keeping it in Perspective

101_0320

 

The dramatic disappearance and murder of US solo tourist Sarai Sierra in Istanbul and the recent gang rape of a Swiss female tourist in India have brought attention to the darker side of travel.  In the wake of these incidents, in particular the Sarai Sierra case there were numerous ill-informed comments by columnists and bloggers calling Sierra foolish for traveling solo as a woman to a predominately Muslim country.  Many of these comments were made by people with little or no experience traveling overseas.  For those of you who are not familiar with the Sarai Sierra incident here is a very brief synopsis:  Sarai Sierra a married mother of two from Staten Island, New York made a trip alone to Istanbul, Turkey to engage in her photography hobby.  This was Sierra’s first overseas trip.  While in Istanbul she stayed in a rented room in a less-desirable section of the city.  She made side trips to Amsterdam and Munich – these side trips caused much wild speculation in the early days of her disappearance.   Throughout the trip she kept in regular contact with her family in the US.  The day before she was supposed to leave Istanbul and return home she reportedly planned to take photos at the Galata Bridge, a prominent landmark.  She never made her flight back to the US and her disappearance got wide media attention in the US and Turkey.

There were many theories immediately following her disappearance, many of them ridiculous:  She had been snatched by human traffickers; she was a drug mule; she was a spy; she was being held by someone she met on the Internet; she had spent tens of thousands of dollars on the trip despite her modest background.   These stories were fueled by the side trips that she made to Amsterdam and Munich, the fact that the only camera she brought for her photography was a smart phone and the fact that she seemed very trusting of strangers she met on the Internet.  In the end the sad truth was much simpler.  It appears Sierra ventured into an area frequented by drug addicts and homeless people to take photographs of the city’s ancient walls and was attacked and bludgeoned to death.  Her alleged attacker, a homeless man was subsequently captured in Eastern Turkey trying to flee across the border to Syria.

While it’s true there were some things that Sierra did that were ill advised and she may have been too trusting of people she didn’t know well these factors did not directly contribute to her death.  The decision to go into a dangerous neighborhood by herself did.  She did do some things right like maintaining regular contact with her family and home and keeping them aware of what she was doing and where she was going.  While we don’t seek to blame the victim there are valuable lessons that can be learned from someone else’s mistakes and missteps so we owe it to ourselves to study incidents like these, to analyze them and determine how we might better protect ourselves by doing some things differently.

Istanbul is a city I am somewhat familiar with having done several security assessments and other tasks there over a period of years as well as vacationing there so I have seen it from several perspectives.  Like any other big city Istanbul has its share of crime and its share of scam artists who will take advantage of unsuspecting tourists.  There is a low level threat of terrorism from an assortment of leftist and Kurdish separatist groups which doesn’t pose much of a threat to the average traveler.  Istanbul does have a reputation as a crossroads for human trafficking but again this activity is unlikely to affect a tourist.  In the wake of Sarai Sierra’s disappearance there were plenty of derogatory comments in the media about her traveling to a hostile Muslim country alone.  Istanbul is actually a very secular city and while there are cultural differences western dress and behavior is accepted and the population can hardly be described as hostile.

In the India incident a Swiss woman and her husband were on a cycling trip in Central India and decided to camp overnight in a forest area in Madhya Pradesh.  Later that night the couple was attacked by a group of men with sticks.  The husband was beaten and tied to a tree and the woman was gang raped.   Indian police later criticized the couple’s decision to camp in that location.  While the police criticism was very insensitive it underscores both the need to consider security implications and also the problems with reliance or confidence in local police authorities.

The important thing to remember when thinking about travel security – whether it be as a solo traveler, a female traveler, a couple, a family or whatever is to keep things in perspective.  There are many misguided, misinformed people, albeit some with good intentions that are engaged in fear-mongering and exaggeration of the threat.  On the other side of the coin there are those who disregard travel security advice as paranoia.  It’s important to walk the middle ground.  Learn about the threats that exist at the location where you are going.  Look at them in the context of your trip and what you plan to be doing.  Take prudent and reasonable steps to mitigate the risk and plan for worst case scenarios so you are prepared should things go wrong.