How I became a high-risk environments consultant

It was the desire to be near the action that first took me down this path - I often refer to it as ‘wanting to be near the pulse of life’;  a place where news and current affairs are happening around you – so close that you can see it unfold raw and unfiltered, before anyone has added their own interpretation to it.

 

I also knew that I wanted to have an effect on the world, to leave a legacy by making it better in some way. It wasn’t long before the opportunity presented it when I met athletes in Afghanistan. Today, thanks to this career choice - I’m able to explore the best methods to help these millenials without encouraging over-reliance.

 

I realised that my advisor role as part of the BBC’s high-risk operations team was one that was highly sought after - however it didn’t give me the degree of control I wanted over what I wanted to do.

 

Months earlier, I’d left the Royal Marines - yet the desire to carry on exploring the world and my own physical and mental boundaries was still burning strong. So I embarked on a journey to figure out how to work and travel on my own terms.

Surprisingly, conflict zones can actually be quite a safe environment if you’re able to understand the context well-enough.

Surprisingly, conflict zones can actually be quite a safe environment if you’re able to understand the context well-enough.

What makes a high-risk environments consultant?

In essence, you’re a guide (or ‘conflict zone chaperone’ as I’ve heard it sometimes referred to!) for people that need to visit these places yet don’t have all the capabilities to reduce the risks to a controllable level. Generally, this is the media and humanitarian sectors – both of which, I’m hugely passionate about.

 

One of the hardest things for people to understand is that you’re not armed. This is for a variety of reasons – which makes it challenging when compared to close protection. And you’re often doing it with a very strained budget forcing you to be incredibly resourceful.

 

You’re there to co-ordinate a response, medically intervene where you can, and shape your team to operate effectively in the context you’re working in.

 

And in reality, it’s much more than just carrying a grab bag. You have to understand the cognitive drivers and team factors that lead people to being in the wrong place unprepared or making bad decisions.

 

Whether it’s summit fever, personal biases, decision fatigue or simply interpersonal conflict: understanding your environment and acting in good time will be much more effective than adding extra layers of armour, insurance or training.

 

Two different sets of job roles led me to this vocation: The military Police close protection unit and the Royal Marines.

High-risk environments aren’t just restrained to conflict. Post-disaster zones can often pose a greater degree of risk due to their fundamentally unstable nature.

High-risk environments aren’t just restrained to conflict. Post-disaster zones can often pose a greater degree of risk due to their fundamentally unstable nature.

Ground knowledge

My time in the military police as close protection specialist taught me how to think dynamically. Over the weeks of training, we (the students) rehearsed hundreds of different scenarios around a mock town in rural Hampshire and then deconstructed our action afterwards where the directing staff (DS) would critique our tactics and thinking. 

 

Confronted with a range of threats from spontaneous local unrest, to armed attacks or a physically violent role-player in a giant red-padded suit (called ‘the red man’ and always the biggest member of DS!); we would have to make an immediate decision based on the information we’d been presented with throughout the scenario. 

 

Learning how to be fully aware of the surroundings (referred to as ‘situational awareness’) and draw in microdata to predict if a scenario would turn violent (which we called the ‘combat indicators’) took a while to develop. 

 

Initially, you’d walk around in a state of hyper-awareness as you awaited the inevitable attack – however we all learned that this was incredibly tiring. The slow release of adrenaline would leave you so frazzled by the end of the day that it was unsustainable. I learned how to match my awareness to the needs of the environment whilst also buffer myself from a sudden adrenaline dump. 

Without this, a potential bodyguard might suffer from the dreaded ‘freeze’ response whereby the amount of adrenaline released overwhelms the brain’s ability to utilise it in the ‘flight or fight’ response.

 

When my turn came up to be the individual bodyguard, I learned to continually run scenarios through in my head as we moved around: ‘what if this guard turns his gun on my ViP and I?’, which way would we go and what obstacles might I encounter on my way to safety?

 

Your role is essentially to give your principal the cognitive space to concentrate on their task in hand – whilst also keeping them mentally agile enough to think and move quickly should a situation rapidly destabilise. This takes social intelligence to notice the warning signs and change your ViP’s intent from thinking to doing – without being constantly on edge.


When I transferred to the Royal Marines, I learned how to use tools to rapidly understand an environment and develop my preferred course of action to shape a preferred outcome. This was hugely challenging at first, understanding a completely new situation and forcing yourself to make a decision that will undoubtedly place your team’s lives at risk in only 2 hours (especially with added sleep deficit!).

But the more I practiced it, the quicker it became – until I realised the shortcuts to help identify the predictors of impending danger.

 

Ultimately, I believe it’s this combination of logical analysis and intuitive dynamic assessment that makes a good high-risk advisor: you know when you shouldn’t be going a certain place, and the times when an environment has become non-permissive and you need to take quick, decisive action.

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