Training for the unforeseen
Recently I was one of a group of journalists who attended a four-day hostile environment training course in Bangkok. I was unsure just what to expect as I’d been told all sorts of tales – mostly scary – about what sort of things would happen to us.
The group numbered 14; all of us Reuters journalists, including text correspondents, video producers and photographers. There were five of us from Pictures – Seoul staffer Jo Yong-Hak, Chief Photographer Japan Mike Caronna, Amit Guptafrom Jammu in Indian-administered Kashmir, Pichi Chuang from Taipei and Victor Frailefrom Hong Kong. The level of experience in the group varied wildly, from highly experienced correspondents, producers and photographers, to neophytes like me.
On the first day of the course, our instructors introduced themselves – they were both ex-Australian SAS personnel, with a wealth of experience of operating in dangerous places including East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the most valuable things I took away with me was the First aid. They promised us at the beginning that by the end we would remember every step. I’d learned first aid at school but had forgotten almost everything about it and never had reason to practice it. Before first aid instruction began, we were asked a blunt question, “I can do something to save each of you, but what can you do to help me?” It made me feel irresponsible forgetting how to provide help in a medical emergency. This was valuable stuff which everyone needs not just in the field but domestically with colleagues, friends and family.
Over the next few days it was information we would have to apply again and again as we tackled the many scenarios and sure enough, by the end, we were able to remember every step of the process irrespective of how complicated it had seemed on the first day. Practical training began with a demonstration on a dummy and over the next couple of days we practiced CPR techniques on each other.
There were numerous practical exercises. In one, we were herded into a hotel room, where the instructors pointed out security flaws and dangers. Some of us were selected at random and blindfolded, the rest of us watching to make sure they don’t injure themselves as they attempted to find the fire exits while not being able to see anything. It’s scary how few people “made it” – lesson learned: situational awareness, always know where you are, the surroundings and how to get out quickly if you need to.
In another, we walked around the sprawling hotel compound with GPS units, calling in our positions to two journalists regularly who plotted our positions on Google Earth. Lesson learned: communication, call out the numbers in single digits, else you might confuse the person at the other end and he or she may plot 50 instead of 15, and put you somewhere else – a serious error if your safety depends on the information getting out.
In yet another, we were exploring the grounds when we came upon a vehicle accident, injured people in the vehicle and others flung into the surrounding undergrowth. Lesson learned: know your first aid procedures to keep people alive until help arrives – always make sure you’ve checked the area thoroughly lest you overlook someone injured in the bushes.
For our final and for me most frightening scenario, we were asked to assemble in the hotel lobby one evening. We were split into groups and we sat nervously in a lounge, waiting for a simulated phone call from an unreliable fixer who was going to take us to interview a reclusive southern Thai rebel leader. The phone call came and our group went downstairs to meet this “fixer”. We tried to follow everything we’d been told about letting people know of your movements and security precautions – but its surprising how much of that changes in the heat of the moment. Even though you know this is a simulated scenario, the adrenalin is pumping, things are moving very, very fast, and although you try to apply everything you’ve learned, some things change with the situation. The “fixer” drove us down a dark alley behind the hotel where we’re suddenly ambushed by masked people carrying what look like AK47 rifles, shouting at us and pounding the car with their rifles and fists. My heart was pounding and I began to panic. As our “fixer” disappears in the chaos and opens the doors, we’re dragged out of the vehicle, taken a few steps away and pushed to the ground – phones, gps units, wallets, passports, everything – taken off us. As we knelt in the dirt we learned that the rebel leader we were to have met had been injured in an explosion and we were expected to help – a gun-toting rebel told us, “he die, you die.” Inside a disused building there are injured people covered in blood and moaning in pain lying on the ground,with glass and shrapnel everywhere. Time to apply, as best you can, everything you’ve been taught. Lessons learned: Don’t ever talk back to your captors unless you want to be thwacked, follow instructions, don’t try to escape, and try not to freak out or look scared as you attempt to remember what you’re supposed to do in this situation.
The lessons and scenarios taught us about correct bandaging techniques in case of snake bites, fractures, shrapnel and chest wounds; what to do in case of a vehicle accident – one of the most common ways in which journalists are injured. We were taught about correct procedures for travelling in a convoy, how to read and give GPS coordinates, how to select a hotel room least exposed to dangers such as explosions, flying shrapnel and stray bullets (it’s frightening to be told how far a bullet can silently travel – and how little armour will do for you), how to backtrack out of a minefield and even what you can do to ease your way if you are a journalist embedded with a military unit.
I learned about simple gadgets that can really improve security; for example, $20 door stops that emit a loud alarm if someone tries to break into you room. I learned how to put together a basic med kit; what to keep in a “go-bag” in case I need to move suddenly, and most importantly, how to assess every situation for potential safety threats, letting colleagues you trust know what you’re doing every step of the way.
Everything was backed up by long conversations with much more experienced colleagues, who shared stories from their years on the job. Amit, our photographer from Jammu, was able to tell us first hand about several life-threatening situations he had been in, and how he prepared himself for them and made sure he got out safely. Video producer Madhu Soman from Mumbai and Vietnam Bureau chief Grant McCool also brought with them a wealth of experience which they were able to share in their stories of covering conflict, bomb scares, floods and barely making it through hostile checkpoints.
From my more experienced colleagues, I learnt that situations out there in the real wild world will never be as controlled as the scenarios we were presented with in Bangkok – a really scary thought – but that what we’d been taught here would give us a reference point, something to being with and some basic steps to follow that would help us operate more safely under oppressive conditions. After our final scenario, I also hoped never to be exposed to a situation in which I’d be at the mercy of trigger-happy militants as we had been in the simulation – that it’s better to be safe and not get into something like that in the first place.
All of us learned to look for things we’d never have considered before going on the course, and while some of what was taught might have seemed common sense, the course helped place safety and security right at the front of our minds.
It brought home just how much difference preparation and training can make to anyone working in an unsafe environment. Getting the story and covering it effectively is one thing but we need to do that without jeopardising our safety or that of our colleagues, eliminate completely unnecessary risks always thinking ahead to the next step and the way out.