In this post, I’d like to share some lessons learned – and to start a conversation about the importance of solving problems on the fly.
This is one story out of many. A day in the life of an executive protection agent. It is not meant to be a complete to-do list, but it does provide some insight into dealing with unforeseen events that pop up out of nowhere when traveling.
The day in East Africa started like so many others. We had already completed two movements. They both went off without a hitch. Now we’re getting ready for our third.
Here’s a look at our pre-drive checklist
- Advance work complete
- Routes are confirmed. The drivers know where they are going, and the cars are in position
- Pre-departure check is complete: the air conditioning works, the gas tank is full, the bottled water for the client is cold, there is a new newspaper in the back, the med kit is ready and onboard, the backup car is ready…
- Talked to our contact person at the next location, the team is ready for us to arrive
- Checked traffic and there are no concerns at this time
- The weather looks fine
Two minutes until the client’s meeting is over. The route is clear we are good to go.
The client comes out with his entourage. They spot me, and start to follow me out to the cars. The route is still clear and everyone gets in the cars. I’m sitting front right; rearview mirror is prefect. Doors locked. My teammate closes the door of the backup car where most of the entourage is riding. We’re good to go.
The hotel gate opens without stopping the motorcade. Check – that piece worked as prepared. We’re in traffic and things are looking OK – we’re still on schedule.
The advance team sends a text: they have arrived at the next location. All clear at the drop, and the route to the meeting is set. The drive is still going as planned and we expect to arrive on time. The drive time is just under 40 minutes. We’re good.
Transfers in developing countries are always stressful, so I’m on the lookout for potential problems. Be alert, be ready, be observant. And be calm and cool.
There are still five hours to wheels up, so there’s still plenty to do. I start going over the next movements in my head. This one’s in the bag – we’ve got everything covered. Looking ahead, trying to anticipate any problems. We’ve got this one – we’ve thought about every potential problem and we have a plan.
Time check. We’re still on schedule to arrive at the next venue as planned. We’re making good time. My next landmark is coming up right where it’s supposed to be. Once we pass it, we turn on to the ring road. The resort where the next meeting is taking place will be ten minutes down the road.
Then we come around the corner and see this:
First thought: WTF!
Second thought: What do we do now?
In this case, here’s how the situation plays out.
First, I tell the driver to stop. That’s when the client asks, “What’s going on?” I could only give one answer: “I don’t know, it looks like a roadblock.”
The client wants to know, “Are we going to be late? This is a very important meeting! It looks peaceful. Can’t you go and talk to them? Can’t we drive around?“
I radio my backup car and my other security team member. He’s getting the same question from the entourage: “What’s going on?”
One of the first things you learn about roadblocks is to do a U-turn and head the other way. But if we do that, we add an hour and a half of driving through heavy traffic. Our venue is visible, right on the horizon. If we turn around, we cancel the next meeting. Although my initial response is to get away from there, that’s not what the client wants.
So what are our other options? We need to reassess the plan. We need to figure out how to keep the client safe AND accomplish his goals. And we need to do it all within one, maybe two minutes.
Here’s the evaluation process:
- Q: Are we in danger? Are we are out of stone-throwing range? Is there a visible threat?
- A: No, we don’t see any imminent danger.
- Q: What is this? Roadblock? Traffic accident? Demonstration? Ambush? Robbery? Party?
- A: We need to figure this out so we can make the right decision for safety and productivity.
- Q: How do we proceed? Do we get the hell out of Dodge?A: If we make that decision we need to own it. Meaning that if we decide to evacuate, we will have to cancel the next few client meetings. I know this is the right thing to do much if we save lives, but it may not be the right call once we get all of the information. If we do evacuate and cancel meetings, and the threat turns out to be non-existent, we will probably be fired. Believe me, the in-country personnel on the trip will follow up and let the client know – especially if it was nothing to be worried about.
We decide to back up and continue our problem solving outside the range of any stones. I know we’re not safe from gunfire, but since we don’t see any escalation (i.e., weapons), and the people manning the roadblock don’t seem to be paying much attention to our vehicles, this is probably not an ambush. If it is, it certainly isn’t a very effective one.
We back up about 100 meters. The cars are positioned to escape if the situation changes. The drivers are ready, the engines are running and so is the air-con. Doors are locked and windows up.
We decide to send our back-up agent and our local National Security resource up to the roadblock and figure out what’s going on. Looking back, this was the right thing to do.
They walk up to the roadblock. Low profile, non-threatening. No reason to escalate the situation. Two people on foot also make for a smaller target of opportunity.
The second car still has some of the VIP entourage inside, so the convoy is together if anything happens.
As they approach on foot, our guys get a better sense of the potential trouble from the ground level. They treat people with respect and discretion and without any show of force. The VIP is still a safe distance away and can be quickly evacuated if necessary. No driving up and shouting out an open window.
Before the two team members leave the motorcade, we agree on two discreet emergency signals they can use without tipping off any people with hostile intent. One signal that we regularly use is for the agent to put his hand on his back and tuck in his shirt. The second one is two clicks on the radio. We also have visual, so if things go sideways fast, we can evacuate.
We keep a very close eye on the meeting. After about five minutes, we get a signal on the radio to move forward and drive through the roadblock. They clear the obstacles on the left side of the road to let us through. After talking to my drivers, we decide to make a move.
As we approach, I tell the driver to keep up a slow but steady speed. Give them time to clear the roadblock. He knows he’s supposed to keep moving through the opening without stopping at any time. He also knows that if anything happens before we’re 30 meters from the roadblock, his job is to turn the car around and get out of there fast. If we’re within 30 meters and something goes down, his instructions are to speed up and drive through.
We get closer. Our two team members seem to be standing with the leader of the roadblock party. Then they split up, and are standing on either side of the opening in the roadblock. Both of our cars drive through without incident. The lead car keeps the speed to the resort. The second car slows down about 30 meters after the roadblock, picks up our team members and then catches up to the lead car.
Our advance agent is waiting for us at the resort. Everything looks normal. He gives me the all clear as we pull up. I get out, open the door for the client, but he has already opened the door himself and is jumping out of the car. He looks at me, and I say what I always say in that situation. “This way, sir.”
By now, our advance agent is at the door of the resort’s conference center. The client smiles, “OK, thank you,” and heads for the door. I fall in behind him. We’re back on track, just four minutes late.
He turns his head and asks, “What was that commotion back there?“
“It was some local dispute,” I say, “totally unrelated to us”.
“Thank you for not overreacting and getting me here on time,” he says.
“That’s is what we do,” I say. And that’s the last time we ever talk about it.
The meeting goes fine, and so does the rest of the day and the rest of the trip.
When we get back, I get a note from the client’s PA. The client told her that the team was great, and that they handled the problem perfectly. In my world it doesn’t get much better than that.
Later that day we learned that the roadblock was the upshot of a local water rights issue.
Negotiations broke down. The locals decided to block traffic to draw attention to their cause and get the police to come. My team told the leaders that if they didn’t let our convoy through, the police would come but they would be very upset because there were VIPs in the car.
Sometimes things work out by themselves. Usually, a little forward thinking makes things work even better.