Security experts say that we should take a common sense approach to our personal safety, regardless of where we live, whether it’s New York City or Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Nairobi, Kenya or London, England. Safety strategy should not be situational or regional when you choose to employ it. It should be a proactive mindset that you live all the time, not unlike defensive driving—recognize the possibility of a problem regardless of how improbable, and having response options tucked away in the back of your mind.
Companies often task security or executive protection teams with briefing employees moving abroad. However, valuable information can be found at the State Department’s website, www.travel.state.gov. You can find information on current regional crime trends such as “express kidnappings”, extortion scams and the use of predatory drugs for purposes of personal and property crimes. Access to real time information is especially helpful if you are moving to a part of the world known to harbor people with hostility against our government or to a developing nation experiencing political unrest.
Here are things to keep in mind as you get ready for your move.
Blending into your new environment is very important. Avoid wearing expensive, flashy jewelry or clothing. Cameras, electronics and laptop bags also draw attention. Exchange currencies upon arrival and do not flash dollars when doing transactions. Avoid carrying any military or law enforcement membership or association identification cards unless required. Driving an understated vehicle commonly seen in your new hometown is recommended. If you can, alternate the vehicle you use from time to time. Knowledge of customs, culture and common courtesies help you understand how to conduct yourself in a manner that conveys respect and consideration for the people of the community you have just joined.
Map out the best routes to get to and from work, store, schools, hospitals, police stations and other safe havens. Be aware of any weak or dead cell phone coverage areas along your routes. It is best to stay on busier streets where traffic flows at a brisker pace. Do not stop to interact with street vendors or pedestrians. Quiet side streets, routes that require a lot of stopping and starting and those that are poorly lit leave you vulnerable to anything from a “smash-and- grab” of a purse or wallet to a carjacking. These are primarily crimes of opportunity that occur more often when people are in or around stationary vehicles. Make a habit of locking your vehicle and getting underway immediately. Other tips include backing into parking spaces whenever possible; never letting your gas tank fall below half full; leaving maneuvering room between you and the vehicle in front of you; and keeping a flashlight and charger for your phone in the vehicle. And don’t forget to check if your car key remote has a panic button.
Clayton Consultants, Inc. (www.claytonconsultants.com), experts in global risk and crisis management, reminds us that most kidnappings for ransom take place on weekday mornings on public streets between the victim’s home and a known destination such as schools, coffee shops or the office. This is why being less predictable in our habits and patterns are so important. Be sure to vary your routes and times of travel, whether on foot or vehicle. If you have the option of varying your entry and exit locations, do so. Be wary of a person or vehicle that you see twice, separated by time and distance. If you see that person or vehicle for a third time, you are being followed. This is not a coincidence and you must move to a high traffic, well lit area immediately.
Good strategy also includes running “what if” scenarios through your mind and determining the best response options to any situation you might be visualizing. One example is what would you do if an intruder was in your home? Exiting the dwelling might be an option but it is always best to have a “safe room” ready. This is a room with a sturdy door, and preferably no windows, to which you can retreat with your cell phone if you absolutely need to. Be sure that you receive a cell signal in this room. Keep a flash card with your home address, a flash light, bottles of water and a fire extinguisher in the safe room. You can easily read your address to the emergency operator from the flashcard if you are in a state of fear and then wait for help to arrive. Safety, disaster and communications kits are available on the Internet and can be stored in a safe room or taken with you during an evacuation.
Regardless of the situation, your strategy will only be as good as your personal communication plan. Have your primary and secondary contacts’ mobile numbers programmed into your cell phone’s speed dialer. It is always best to share your schedule with your contacts, check in with them during your day, and brief them on what to do if they lose communication with you. Examples of business and family emergency communication plans can be found and downloaded at www.ready.gov
Your contact list should include local law enforcement, company security personal and the U.S. Embassy. The State Department also recommends you create a profile through their Travel Registration page so they know where you are and how to contact you. The State Department can only help you during political turmoil, a natural disaster, a disease outbreak or even an act of terrorism if they know where you are. If you travel from your new hometown on vacation or business, it is worth logging on and registering that trip as well.
The cornerstone to any safety and security strategy is being aware of your surroundings. The late Jeff Cooper, a Marine Lieutenant Colonel, described the ideal state of mental preparedness as one in which you are relaxed and observant of your surroundings and therefore, more difficult to surprise. He called this “Condition Yellow”. Those oblivious of their surroundings were described by Cooper to be in “Condition White” and criminals very easily recognize this lack of attentiveness—daydreaming, multitasking, walking “heads down” and in general, not being “present time” aware.
The military reminds us that we live in a “360 degree world”. Remember to look up especially in urban environments. Criminals like to “perch” and do their surveillance from high ground like balconies and upper stories in a mall, knowing that most of us never look up! The most important area to monitor in your 360 degree world is the blind spot just behind you from where most attacks are launched known as your “six o clock.”
As you casually scan your surroundings, your instincts will let you know if there is someone in your midst that warrants closer attention. Over 50 percent of communication is via body language. Shifting, darting eyes, fidgety, clenching hands and a shifting stance are some of the telltale signs of a suspicious demeanor. Fred Burton, a counter terrorism and corporate security expert with Stratfor Global Intelligence (www.stratfor.com) reminds us that even the most sophisticated criminals are not able to completely hide these and other telltale signs of someone trying to “fit in” while doing surveillance. This is why Burton states that the best opportunity to identify and to react to a prospective problem is during the perpetrators surveillance phase, when there is still time to do so on our own terms.
It is best to avoid high-profile tourist destinations, any location that is iconic of American culture and five-star western hotels. Similarly, avoid any planned rallies, protests or large public gatherings. If you do travel regionally, be sure to use well-vetted ground transportation. Hotels with a high visibility security personnel presence are preferred. Regardless of you location, a hotel, business meeting, school or at an airport, always know where the primary and secondary exits are located. If in a public place you hear gunfire or if police or military personal were to arrive in force you need to take cover immediately. If evacuating is your best option do so and drop anything that will slow you down. If instructed to evacuate with a group of people, try and position yourself in the middle of this group.
If the mind is our most powerful weapon, then our instincts are our ever-present guardian. No discussion on personal safety is complete without revisiting and reinforcing the topic of intuition and instincts. We often deem our instincts as silly or irrational, many of us not wanting to “cause a scene” or embarrass others or ourselves. In fact, many of us, who have good instincts and “Condition Yellow” mindsets, are often accused of being paranoid. Most often this accusation comes from someone who quite obviously lives in “Condition White”, hardly a credible source.
Gavin DeBecker, a world renowned safety expert, describes our intuition as “knowing without knowing why”. Remember, it is okay to know something is amiss without staying around to find out why. Honor your instincts, stick to your safety strategy, cover your six o’clock and enjoy your new destination.
Larry Kaminer- Personal Safety Training Group