What is HEAT?
Hostile Environment Awareness Training, or HEAT, is provided to persons who are being fielded internationally to high-risk regions or active conflict zones. Originally it was provided to U.S. Government employees, but it’s also offered to the employees of international businesses and the staff of some non-profits.
HEAT courses range from a few hours in a classroom to multiple-day courses that include harsh field time involving complex scenarios and professional role players. I’ve provided training that included responding to and surviving carjacking, first aid, active shooter drills, and even political abductions, complete with the ‘victims’ suddenly finding themselves in wire ties with bags over their heads.
The kidnap scenarios end with a violent “rescue” complete with grenade simulators and security forces armed with blank-firing rifles bursting into the room and ordering the hostages to stay down while they killed the terrorist. While this all sounds cool and exciting to go through, one might ask how this kind of training can be applied to everyday life in the U.S.
The need for HEAT in active conflict zones like Iraq or Syria is obvious. HEAT is also offered to people traveling to places like Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Kenya. Anyplace where there’s high crime, civil unrest, poor police protection, or a high chance of violent or mass attacks on civilians. These days, places like Chicago, San Francisco, and Detroit would also seem to qualify.
HEAT Equals Common Sense
HEAT courses include the extreme training mentioned above, but most people will never find themselves in the Middle East, Africa, or Asia. However, all HEAT courses also include a lot of solid training and guidance that can and should be applied to the normal activities of everyday life.
Discussions on personal safety and security frequently fall back on the simple axiom of ‘Don’t go to stupid places, with stupid people, and do stupid things.’ Good advice, but a bit more detail might be helpful.
This article will discuss some of the HEAT topics more applicable to everyday life in America. Many of which fall under the category of common sense. However, as someone once said, common sense is sometimes not all that common these days, and no amount of training is of any value if it is not applied.
Africa vs. USA
As an illustration of this, there was a situation I was personally involved in a few years ago affecting a highly seasoned international development worker. She was fielded to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for three weeks to tour medical clinics in the bush. The area was remote to the point of her staying in Catholic missions at night because there were no hotels in the tiny villages.
She was highly experienced and managed to avoid every hazard, from getting sick to being kidnapped by roving bands of bandits and extremists. Until she got home.
She drove home from the airport and pulled into her garage, shutting off the engine and getting out of the car before closing her garage door. Three men promptly rushed into her garage and attacked and robbed her. Fortunately, she escaped with only cuts and bruises.
In a HEAT course, you are taught never to unlock your car door or get out unless you are certain you are in a secure area. She failed to remember this and was complacent after completing her challenging assignment in Africa. Fortunately, she got out of the experience with only a few bruises, but it illustrates a critical concept . . . complacency can kill you.
The Five Ps
There is an Army adage that goes Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. The Five Ps. A key component of HEAT courses is to plan ahead for whatever it is you are doing. This includes trip planning that takes into consideration routes, travel time, arrival time, conditions at the start and destination points, traveling conditions, historical dates or current events, etc. It also applies to having a plan in the event of a crisis, no matter what kind of crisis it is.
Reviews of events such as terrorist attacks, crimes, or even automobile accidents indicate that when a crisis hits, it is the people who have thought ahead and have a plan who reacts best. They spring into action while everyone else is standing around in shock, wringing their hands and saying, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe this is happening.”
The Army teaches its officers that making a decision and doing something, even if it is the wrong thing, is better than doing nothing at all. This may seem counterintuitive, but the point is to teach them not to be paralyzed by indecision. The same thing is a key component of HEAT.
When you are preparing to travel anywhere outside your house, make a plan. Look at the route and note areas that may be more hazardous than others. The hazard could be construction, high crime areas, or simply stretches where there are no services in case your car breaks down. Know ahead of time what you will do if something happens.
Plan your travel times, whether you are going across town or across the country. Stay out of bad places at bad times. Check the news for current events. In other words, don’t go to a Fergusson or a Baltimore if riots are occurring.
Have an Escape Plan
The same goes for any outing to a public place. My wife and I like rock concerts. We had tickets to a concert that was taking place a week after the Paris concert terrorist attack of November 2013. You can bet we had a long discussion about whether to attend or not. In the end, we decided we were going, and no terrorists or copycats were going to stop us.
But we also made a plan. We looked at the floor plan of the venue. We planned our arrival times and actions once in the venue to be very close to the stage. This put a lot of people between us and the main entrance. It also put us next to access to the backstage area that would have outside egress routes. Trust me, the unarmed concert security guys are great dudes, but they would not have stopped us from getting to the backstage area if we had to.
The same goes for eating out in a restaurant or going to a movie. HEAT trains you always to know the layout and exit points of everywhere you go. Once we get into a restaurant, we look at all the access routes. Not just the main and side doors but the windows and the kitchen entrance. Kitchens have back doors, and we are always prepared to use them if need be.
In short, look at where you are and make a plan. It’s no different for a theater. Understand your environment. Decide where you’re going to sit, how you will react in the event of an incident, and what your decision-making criteria are regarding whether to evacuate, hide or fight.
I won’t go into your decision-making process when it comes to whether or not to carry concealed in the usual ‘Gun Free Zone’ environment of most theaters and many stores. I’ll just say that my wife and I don’t go anywhere unarmed. But even being armed with a handgun may not help much if the attacker is shooting a rifle from across a crowded room. Have a backup plan.
Simple Personal Safety Measures
I’m going to talk about personal security in hotels and motels a little later. But before I get into that, I would like to talk about some general measures we can all take to improve our safety and security when we travel. HEAT courses teach travelers to be ready for any emergency when staying in hotels in places like Kabul, Mogadishu, or Nairobi. But much of the information is just as applicable to any hotel or motel in America.
Let There Be Light
For example, I was on a domestic security assessment assignment that required me to travel to some rather out-of-the-way places in the US. I found myself in a hotel in Garden City, Kansas. Six tornadoes had just gone through nearby Dodge City (yes, THAT Dodge City) about an hour before. As I lay in the bed reading, the power went off. I always carry a couple of flashlights with me whenever I travel, so I had one next to the bed where I could reach it in the dark.
I flipped it on and checked the hall. It was dark. No emergency lights, no lit exit sign, nothing. No idea why the hotel emergency lights weren’t working, but they weren’t. This illustrates another aspect of planning . . . you can never really rely on anyone but yourself.
You would be surprised by how few people carry flashlights when traveling. When I ask in HEAT courses how many people do, less than half usually raise their hands. Some point out there is a flashlight on their phone. But do you really want to run your phone battery down using it as a flashlight in a crisis? The moral of the story . . . carry a flashlight, know where it is and that it works, and be able to access it quickly in the dark.
Tiny Tools, Big Benefit
Another useful item is a solar charger for your phone. They are inexpensive and compact, usually around $20. But they can be a lifesaver if you find yourself in a situation where your phone is dead with no electricity available, and you need to call for help. Almost no one carries one of these around, even though they are about the size of an iPhone.
A small, straw-type water purification filter is another important item. LifeStraw is the best-known, but there are many brands. They are cheap and, according to the manufacturer, will generally filter around 1000 gallons of water. You may never find yourself in a country where there is no safe drinking water. But you might get stranded somewhere and have only the water in the roadside ditch to drink for a day or so.
I never drink the local water in a hotel in Africa or the Middle East without using one. But the water in American hotels near larger cities usually tastes pretty bad to those of us used to well water. If it is, particularly nasty smelling or tasting, I use them there too.
A pocket knife or multi-tool is also good to have wherever you go. Just be sure to know where it is if you are going to go through a security point with a metal detector. You don’t need the drama or to have your tool confiscated.
Hotels And Motels
HEAT courses discuss the selection of hotels in high-risk areas and what to do if something happens. I walked through the Serena Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, the day after the Taliban attacked it in January 2008. There were still piles of glass around all the windows in the front of the hotel. There was a small crater in the parking lot where a suicide bomber detonated his vest after being shot by security guards and bullet holes in the lobby where they gunned down patrons. It was a chilling experience.
I’m grateful that we generally don’t have to worry about this in American hotels, although the concert shooting in Las Vegas has implications for this happening here. Particularly with the way the media hypes these events giving rise to copycats who want their own headlines. But that’s another topic.
Significantly, the organization I was providing security consulting for had someone staying in the Serena Hotel when the attack occurred. He survived through a combination of good luck and the fact that he did all the right things when it happened. I had given him his departure security briefing before he left the USA a few weeks earlier, and he followed the guidance. He had a room on the third floor where he’d barricaded himself in and stayed in the bathroom until the security team came and retrieved him.
Choosing a Room
How you choose a room is going to depend a lot on how many floors the hotel has. If it’s a typical Days Inn, it will probably only have a couple of floors.
In general, it’s best not to get a room on the ground floor as it makes your room a more attractive target to criminals who want to get in and out of a room fast if they are stealing something. Since some rooms are accessible from the parking lot, they make you a more inviting victim if you are out buying a soda or getting ice.
There’s also the risk of someone running into the building with their vehicle. If the hotel has multiple floors, try not to be above the third floor since it makes it more difficult to get out in the event of a fire, especially if the hall is blocked and you have to be rescued with a fire ladder.
Know the Layout
Remember my story about the tornados in Kansas? When the power went off, the emergency lights in the hallway failed to work. I was in the dark.
Ensure you know the layout of your room and hallway. Know where the hotel fire escapes are and be able to find them in the dark or heavy smoke. Always have a flashlight handy, and keep your shoes where you can grab them quickly. It may sound extreme to you, but I always navigate my room with my eyes closed after I check in to be sure I can do it in the dark. I also go into the hall and count the number of steps from my door to the fire escape.
Use the back of your hand to test a door to see if it is hot before opening it. You do not want to open a door into a raging fire. You use the back of your hand rather than your palm so that you don’t burn your hand to the point where you cannot use it to turn doorknobs.
If you are trapped in your room, wet some bedding to stuff under the door to help block smoke from coming in. Fill your bathtub with water so you can use it to cool yourself, the walls, and the door. If above the ground floor, open or break your window and hang a sheet out of it so firefighters know you are in there. If you look at a photograph of hotel fires, you will see numerous windows with bedding hanging out of them for just this reason.
Never Rely on Door Locks
Never rely on door locks to keep you secure. Hotel staff has keys to bypass the regular locks. Security chains or latches are often not very well installed and are easy to break. Throw a little rubber doorstop in your bag so that you can jam it under the door at night when you go to bed. You’d be surprised how well they keep a door from opening. You can buy purpose-made doorstops with a built-in alarm, but the cheap little rubber ones work fine.
Wherever you are, when you gotta go, you gotta go. But using a public restroom at a highway rest stop, convenience store, or even a restaurant can put you in a vulnerable position. There are some things you can do to reduce your vulnerability.
In a Stall
If you are using a toilet stall, try to pay attention to people coming and going. If you hear someone come in, but then it goes quiet, it could mean that they are waiting for you to come out of the stall. That could mean they are just waiting their turn, but it could also mean they are waiting to surprise you.
It may go against what you are comfortable with, but there is nothing wrong with simply saying, “Are you waiting for the toilet?” That lets them know that you know they are out there. If they are just innocently waiting their turn, no worries. If they had something else in mind, it might discourage them from acting on it. At the very least, you will hear their voice which gives you a little something to go on.
When using a Urinal
This one is for the gentlemen, so my apologies in advance to the ladies. This may seem like an odd topic, but you are very vulnerable when standing at the urinal. You are occupied and staring at the wall in front of you. Anything could be going on behind you, and you wouldn’t know. Someone could easily walk up behind you and assault you by slamming your face into the wall, hitting you from behind, or sticking a weapon in your ribs.
If there are multiple urinals, always use the one furthest down the line. This may seem like a bad idea because it puts you in a corner and cut off from the door. And that is true. But it also means that no one has an excuse to walk behind you. If they do, you will know they aren’t just heading to the next urinal in line. It also puts you in a position where you can get your back to a wall if anything does happen.
Using the Sink
Sinks are less of a problem than a urinal, but some of the same things apply. If possible, use the sink furthest down the line so no one has an excuse to walk behind you. Keep your eye on the mirror so you know what’s going on while you wash your hands.
In general, take care of business and get out. If your phone dings, wait until you’re out of the restroom and somewhere a bit more secure before checking to see who texted you. A great deal of personal safety measures rely on thinking things through and using common sense.
In Part Two of Everyday Lessons from Hostile Environment Awareness Training, we will look at things like carjacking, abductions and reacting to gunfire.