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Chased through the woods by thugs with guns

November 1, 2017
Car accident training

So yes, that’s a clickbait headline. But I wanted to talk about a three-day course I went on recently that I’m still thinking about. The INGO I work for sent me on what’s known as a HEAT – it stands for Hostile Environment Awareness Training. This particular one was run by the organization’s own Security Management team, with help from the local police department and other volunteers.

The course consisted of two days of theory, including security management and awareness as well as first aid, then one day of practical exercises at a local paint-ball range with extensive woods and even a small mock village. The first scenario involved volunteers from the Portland Police playing armed thugs at a hostile checkpoint, roughing us up and stealing our car. The checkpoint came under gunfire from a second hostile group, then us being chased through the woods by people shooting at us with paintball guns. The second scenario involved responding to a major car crash, extracting four severely injured victims from the car, then responding to a mine injury nearby and extracting a severely injured casualty from a minefield.

So – I have a few thoughts about this as a pedagogical style. I don’t think that it’s possible to learn very much while you’re terrified and confused. Indeed, a couple of the less experienced team members on the course seemed to have a particularly rough time with this. There is a bit of a movement within the security training community to move away from these physical simulations to more standard operating procedure trainings this reason and others.

But here’s the thing. As someone who has been shot at, dealt with plenty of trigger happy checkpoint thugs, and experienced the stress of movement in mined areas, I can attest to the fact that there is a tendency for your mind and body to turn to jelly in those moments. Your lizard brain takes over and your first response is to curl up in a ball and hope the world goes away. That said, learning about how you react when you are confused and terrified is a really great thing.

Don’t get me wrong, most aid workers will go their entire careers and never be in a situation that even remotely resembles an action movie, but if you’re unlucky enough to have one of those days, having experienced that visceral terror, and the knot in your stomach that tells you just to pretend that this isn’t happening at least once before can be helpful. It gives you a little more of a fighting chance to do the right thing.

I would wholeheartedly encourage anyone who has the chance to do one of these courses. I don’t want to say they are fun – I actually came away with a cracked rib from diving over-energetically to avoid a grenade – but more significantly the scenarios were real enough to bring up some fairly turbulent emotions for me. You’re extremely unlikely to be unlucky enough to have a real day like this – if you have one of these in your career then you’re unlucky – many people never do. That said, it does happen, and it’s great to have the experience of jumping out of a car in a simulated ambush, trying to run for cover, and having your legs give way under you. Its humbling, but controlling your fear, and thinking through how to survive the next 30 seconds is a learned skill, and you can practice it!


This is a link to the Norwegian Refugee Counsel’s HEAT offering – it’s not the one I went on, but is illustrative of the kind of thing you should expect.

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