Staying Safe When Visiting an Unfamiliar Location
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
A friend who was writing an article providing advice to help journalists stay safe when visiting unknown places asked me to compile a bullet point list of tips to include in his article.
As I reflected on the list, and some of the incidents that precipitated my friend’s article, it occurred to me that the advice is applicable to almost anyone who visits an unfamiliar location.
In addition to journalists, others who could benefit from these tips include social workers, real estate agents, census workers, visiting healthcare workers, and even auditors or other corporate travelers visiting a client or supplier facility.
There is also an international application of these principles for tourists, corporate travelers, and missionaries.
In light of this wider application, I decided to flesh out the bullet points into an article for the TorchStone Watch.
Know Before You Go
The first step I advise anyone to take before going to an unfamiliar place is to research the location as thoroughly as possible in the time they have, using all the tools at their disposal.
There is an incredible amount of information available on the internet and many times a simple search of the neighborhood or street name will uncover a great deal of material about a location including background about the location’s history and geography, neighborhood guides, news stories, gossip websites, and blogs.
Street view photos can also convey a great deal of useful data.
Quite often a basic internet search will also take you to a map of the area, but if not, you should also go to Google Earth or another mapping tool to get a general overview of the area on both the map and satellite views.
A search for the city or neighborhood name and crime data can also be useful.
Many municipalities publish their crime statistics by neighborhood, police precinct, or zip code.
Some places will even provide searchable crime maps that can help highlight crime trends and locations.
In places where crime data is not readily available, real estate tools can often provide a helpful way to obtain that information.
For locations outside the U.S., the U.S. State Department and U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office provide useful crime and safety information, as do their Australian, Canadian, and other foreign counterparts.
Journalists and corporate visitors may have access to powerful paid research tools such as LexisNexis that can also help provide a great deal of information on an address or area and should take advantage of those tools if they can.
A key step toward protecting yourself in an unfamiliar location and in mitigating the impact of a hostile action directed against you is adopting the proper mindset.
One aspect of this mindset is accepting the fact that we live in a violent world and that anyone can be targeted.
This realization helps protect against denial: “It can’t happen to me, it can’t happen here, and it can’t happen now,” and helps people quickly recognize danger, which is an important key to avoiding or surviving an attack.
The second element of a good security mindset is for individuals to accept responsibility for protecting themselves and those they love.
As we see repeatedly in crimes victims simply can’t rely on the authorities to protect them from all threats.
In most cases, the incident is over well before the police can respond.
Maintaining the proper mindset also involves choosing to practice an appropriate level of awareness for the situation one is in.
Simply put, situational awareness is simply paying attention to what is going on around you.
A person should consciously shift themselves into a heightened or “focused” state of awareness whenever they are going into an unknown situation.
Adopting a focused state of awareness will help a person see indicators of hostility or violent intent and spotting these signs early can help avoid a violent encounter—or at least help mitigate its impact.
Being in a focused state of awareness makes one less likely to freeze when confronted by unexpected danger and prepares a person to quickly begin to implement their OODA process to assess the situation and respond.
OK, so you’re practicing focused awareness and you notice something suspicious or potentially dangerous, what then? First, I always advise people to trust their gut instincts.
If something or someone strikes a person as odd, or dangerous, it likely is—even if the observer can’t clearly articulate a reason why.
Quite often, a person’s subconscious can detect subtle behaviors and demeanor tics that the conscious mind does not.
After a crime, it is quite common to hear a victim say that they knew something seemed wrong with a person or situation but that they ignored their intuition and paid a price for it.
In most cases, there is very little downside to avoiding a potentially dangerous situation other than a bit of inconvenience, so it is wise to err on the side of caution if you sense violence, hostility, or danger.
Avoid Danger Where Possible
When the sense that something is wrong changes into a definite sign of danger, you must react quickly and take action to protect yourself.
As I noted in a recent piece, distance is your friend in a bad situation, but before blindly running, you must ensure that you are running away from danger and not into an even worse situation.
Journalists can sometimes get themselves into more danger by seeking to record or document an event instead of placing distance between them and the danger.
But in the age of smartphones and social media, we are seeing bystanders frequently attempting to record attacks on their cell phones rather than distance themselves from danger or seek cover and concealment.
Sometimes journalists will also attempt to stand their ground in the face of a hostile person thinking that their status as a journalist will somehow protect them from harm—it will not.
This also happens with some Americans traveling abroad, who think their citizenship will somehow protect them if they indignantly speak out against an act of violence or injustice.
Street criminals and insurgents don’t care what color your passport is, and corrupt cops don’t give much thought to your rights.
Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst
When going into an unfamiliar place you should always have a contingency plan in case things go bad.
This starts with a communication plan.
Make sure that your communication devices will work in the location and plan for redundant communications.
Secondly, let someone know where you are going, how long you will be there, when to expect you back, and—most importantly—when to come looking for you.
For long trips in remote areas, it is wise to establish a series of checkpoints and a time schedule for checking in, and then communicate with someone when you reach each checkpoint.
This way they will have a point of reference to start a search if you don’t make it to a checkpoint.
You should also know where the police stations, military bases, fire stations, and other safe places in your location and along your route.
Another important point of reference is the closest trauma center in case you are injured and require medical help.
I also recommend that people carry a first aid kit with Stop the Bleed materials and ensure they receive training on how to use them, so they can render aid to themselves or others if needed.
As part of my EDC, I carry Stop the Bleed kits in each of my vehicles and in my briefcase.
They are not bulky and could mean the difference between life and death.
I also carry a high-intensity flashlight and a smoke hood in my work bag.
Hopefully, you never need to use your contingency plan or your medical gear, but it is far better to have them and not use them, than it is to need them and not have them.