Personal Security: How to Keep a Healthy Perspective on Threat, Vulnerability and your Safety

Entering the arena of international business today is a risk not just to your company’s capital, or resources but also to the personal security of you and your employees who travel abroad. In the not too distant past, this dictum applied only to hostile third-world environments fraught with insurgencies, terrorism, or political upheaval.

Sadly, personal risk to life and limb can just as easily apply in Europe, where normally safe tourist destinations or concert halls have been violently wrenched by terrorist attacks. I recently participated in an informal discussion that centered around the notion that there are far greater threats to our life and limb such as disease, public health and safety than terrorism. There are statistics that certainly support this notion. However, I found that equating the instance and effects of terrorism and terrorists with the instance and effects of hurricanes, tornadoes, train derailments, or individuals hit by falling roof tiles to be logically fallacious equivocation. In fact, I suspected that this “leveling” of the terrorist threat was a back door way to essentially state the biggest dodge of our time… “Terrorism is the new normal. We must accept it. Nothing we can do about it.”

I disagree with this line of thought. From the standpoint of risk, while the above-listing of threats does indeed put terrorism in its context with other bad things in the world, it is important not to deliberately minimize the risk it poses. Yes, an impetus for doing so: statistically subjugating it to a host of other global ills, somehow deflates its importance. However, doing so misses the simple point that terrorism is much higher and more prevalent in some places and situations than others. Drawing a statistical equivalence to natural hazards or accidents is unwise because it puts a damper on acknowledging terrorism’s growth, spread, and metastasization. It invites ignorance of it. Perhaps the best advice is not to ignore terrorism, but instead acknowledge the risk and remain aware. Ignoring the conditions and signs of cancer, for instance, allows it to metastasize. Inviting the notion that terrorism can be minimized, like – say – the weather, allows precisely the same thing. We should not allow terrorists to “terrorize” us into paralytic fear. However, a healthy respect of its presence, spread and impact is sensible and reasonable. It turns fear into vigilance.

There is something we…meaning “you” the individual, can and should do about the terrorist threat. While we’re at it, the criminal threat as well. Strictly speaking, it is the government’s responsibility to protect its citizens from terrorism. In many places, and I fear in our own country as well, that hasn’t been working out too well. Abdicating your responsibility from being watchful of the terrorist threat to government is naive. Yes, hope the government does its job well…but hope is not a strategy. Ultimately, staying safe and surviving in today’s environment from intentional threat actors and events is up to the individual. One needs to adopt a healthy perspective, and program, about their own security…since it is never certain that police, soldiers, or first responders can guarantee it for you.

Quite often, CEO’s must dispatch their employees or even themselves at very short notice to environments where they must live and do business in a milieu that is at best unfamiliar and at worst quite dangerous and acutely unforgiving of mistakes or complacency. Or, with little notice one’s routine business trip is suddenly diverted to an unknown country or regional capital, with no point of contact at the receiving end. A third possibility is that the traveler is in an allegedly safe, secure environment that is suddenly thrown into chaos. Such is the reality of the world in which we live today, as evidenced in Manchester, Paris, Nice, San Bernadino, and Orlando.

Large corporations ought to have adequate journey management programs designed to address travel security issues, to include briefings for executives or employees traveling into dangerous areas of the globe. Unfortunately, most corporate security programs focus their perennially limited resources on physically securing facilities and (perhaps) senior executives traveling to a high-risk region, and little else. If there is a corporate journey management program for all employees, it can be limited to travel security awareness briefings or tracking the employee’s travel. Should an incident occur—assuming that the employee’s contact and tracking information is up to date—remediation measures are typically reactive “Emergency Response” rather than proactive personal protective measures.

This is not a security plan. It is a security checklist posing as a plan. Individuals need to be given the tools and awareness to learn the instincts required to avoid having to be plucked from the jaws of a crew of kidnappers or terrorists in the first place. A great deal of emphasis, we believe, needs to be placed on inoculating the value of practicing the principles of personal security on the front end of the security cycle—preparation, detection and deterrence elements. The result is a tailored personal security program that leaves one less of a victim of circumstances, and more of a master of one’s fate.

A good personal security plan provides one a “portable set of security wisdom” that ensures it resides where it is most effective – in one’s head, and not on a sheet of paper or a book. Abstract principle, and concrete practice can be blended to ensure one has a set of pegs, on which to hang key personal security concepts. Three overarching concepts to an effective personal security program anchor its development. They are the concepts of effectiveness, the concepts of risk (unique to personal security), and that of time. “Effectiveness” translates to the ability of a good plan of security to be available for immediate recall in memory. “Risk” in the context of personal means being capable of anticipation as well as reaction. If one is self-aware and also understands and knows the “enemy,” they are much more capable at identifying adversary patterns and anticipating tactics, and reacting quickly to avoid them.

In personal security, threat actors and threat events are external – a kidnapper, a mugger, a thief, terrorist. However, the idea of vulnerabilities is more complex – they are dynamic and multi-dimensional, in the sense that they can be both external and internal. For example, if one is paralyzed by fear, that is an internal vulnerability that will be exploited by an adversary. If one is in the wrong place at the wrong time, they become vulnerable to an adversary through external circumstances. Unlike other security disciplines, in personal security the concept of time is at a premium. The time required to identify, react, and mitigate a potential or validated threat event happens very, very quickly. Ultimately, within this discipline the ability to spot threat patters and indicators on the street… profiling the environment, as it exists, is critical. Sensitivity to detail on the street gives one the skill to anticipate and avoid threat actors quickly.

The five key principles around which one’s personal security plan is designed are:

  • Preparation
  • Detection
  • Deterrence
  • Delay
  • Defense

Just as in the world of physical security where principles are developed to design layers of security around a facility, in the world of personal security these principles design layers around YOU – the principle asset. By extension, a well-designed personal security plan can be used to protect those for whom the company is responsible – fellow businesspersons or team members – or an executive security program.

Once outside the gates of our modern “castles,” personal security planning gets much harder and more often than not defies disciplined engineering — it is a world that does not sit still for drawings and blueprints. It requires the development of good instincts, judgment, habits, and preparation. Through adoption of sound personal security principles and habits, one can avoid falling for the old myth that “it cannot happen to me” when traveling abroad.