Preparedness Lessons from Executive Protection

Preparedness Lessons from Executive Protection

After my first son was born, it struck me JUST how important my role as a protector was. When it was just my wife and me, I knew she could handle herself with or without weapons. But when our tiny, innocent son was born, my need to be able to protect my family went through the roof.

As a result, in addition to other empty hands and firearms training, I went through 70+ hours of formal executive protection training that helped refine my skills as a protector, a planner, and as a prepper.

If you’re not familiar with “executive protection,” it is another term for bodyguard, except that bodyguards are traditionally hired “by the pound” and executive protection specialists have skills and training WAY beyond simply throwing their weight around.

The use of the phrase “executive protection” became popular in 1970 when the White House Police Force was renamed the Executive Protection Services. When they again changed their name to “Secret Service Uniformed Division” in 1977, the phrase “executive protection” went into wide use in the civilian sector.

There is a huge overlap between the disciplines of executive protection and preparedness. In fact, the job of a skilled EP (executive protection specialist) is 95-99% preparation and only 1-5% reaction. There are several lessons that have been paid for with the blood of others that we can benefit from…not only after a disaster when we’re in survival mode, but tomorrow when going to work, the store, or to see a friend.

Most of the proponents of “be your own bodyguard” are only interested in fighting, but the best professional bodyguards plan for, identify, and avoid trouble more often than they “go loud” and have to use violence or lethal force to protect their subject.

One of the best examples of this is the US Secret Service. President G.W. Bush received approximately 3000 threats per year during his presidency. President Obama received about 30 per day or 11,000 per year initially, but quickly dropped back down to “normal” levels.

With all of the threats, credible threats, and planned attempts that have been made on our leaders, the last one that was semi-successfully pulled off was in 1981. (I’m not counting the airplane or rifle “attacks” on the White House as being even semi-successful)

To continue that example, we’re not going to focus on the handful of times that Secret Service had to go loud and eliminate the threat of a potential assassin…we’re going to focus instead on what they did the other 60,000 times to keep our presidents safe.

Specifically, we’re going to focus on the skills and thought processes that the Secret Service and executive protection specialists use to avoid trouble for them and their subjects/protectees/principals.

Fortunately, most aspects of executive protection are not very complicated. They become complicated by the sheer number of simple things that executive protection specialists must do right. The sooner you start practicing a few of these skills and disciplines, the better you will be at them and the quicker you’ll be able to add on additional ones.

You will have one HUGE advantage over executive protection specialists—when they go on the job, it’s normally because their principal either has an active threat against them, or because they have a high profile and are a good target.

When you go “on the job,” it’s to protect yourself or the ones you love. There’s no immediate threat, and you get to learn on the job.

With that, let’s look at some of the practices that bodyguards do to keep their principals from being attacked.

One of the things that bodyguards do is to look at places where they know their principal will be and find the best spots to do surveillance and/or attack from.

Let’s take your home as an example. If you can, pull up an overhead shot of your house from maps.google.com. You’ll have the option of viewing your house as a map or as an overhead picture. Choose the overhead picture option, zoom in to the 2nd or 3rd highest setting, and print it out.

You might need the help of someone who knows some computer trickery to make this happen. Since you can’t print satellite images from Google, you have to do a screen capture (Prnt Scrn), copy it into a word processor or graphics program, change it into landscape mode, and THEN print it out. It will look better if you have a color printer, but I print out on black and white and it’s definitely usable.

If you don’t want to go to the trouble of figuring out this method, you can simply take a piece of paper and a pencil and draw out your house and the houses around you. It doesn’t need to be fancy…the whole purpose of this is to train your brain.

Next, mark every place on the map that you can see from a door or window from your house. This will end up being a series of overlapping arcs. I like to shade this area in. The reason this is important is because anyone who wants to see a door or window on your house will have to be in this shaded area.

From an executive protection standpoint, it means that anyone who wants to surveil or cause harm to the principal will need to be within these arcs.

The way that I use this information is that I look at our house through the eyes of a burglar or home invader. Where would I need to be to have a clear view into the house? Where would I need to be to see when the occupants are turning off lights to go to bed?

Where would I need to be to see which occupants are coming and going? Where would I need to be to see whether or not they lock the door or set an alarm when they leave?

Then, if I see people in those places that I don’t recognize, I immediately take note of them. I don’t panic or get freaked out. I just take note of them. I regularly write down license plate numbers or discretely snap pictures with my phone.

If they’re sitting in their car on either side of the street in front of my house, I’ll drive or walk up to them and ask them if I can help them.

Please understand, I don’t have any specific threats that I’m concerned about. I’m just aware that home invasions happen 8 times more often than house fires and I want to protect my family. I don’t invest much time or effort in doing this, but I have the peace of mind of knowing what’s going on around me and any strangers in front of our house know that they’ve been seen, acknowledged, and could probably be identified in a lineup if they decided to do anything stupid.

When dealing with predators who are simply looking for easy prey, being acknowledged is oftentimes enough to cause them to move on to another area.

Another example, is spotting someone sitting in a van right next to your car in a parking lot. I’ve helped film scenarios built around this and we found that a lone man could easily shove a lady into a van, incapacitate her, shut the door, restrain her with pre-cut duct tape or zip ties, get in the driver’s seat, and drive off inconspicuously in under 15 seconds.

So, if you’ve got a situation where you find a “creepy” person or people in a van next to your car, you can walk on by and approach from a different angle to see if you get a better feeling, get in your car from the other side, or, if possible, ask security to walk you to your car.

Alternate Exits: This is a simple one, but vital for executive protection specialists. When you go anywhere, always try to quickly pick out multiple conventional (doors) and unconventional (windows) exits. In the movie, “Fireproof”, Kirk Cameron’s character finds himself trapped in a burning house and hacks through the floor and crawls out through the crawlspace to escape. It’s not important that you don’t walk around with an axe to hack through floors—what’s important is to train your mind to see egress possibilities around you.

The reason for exiting could be a gas leak, accidental explosion, terrorist attack, fire, earthquake, robbery, active shooter, or simply avoiding someone who might cause an unnecessary confrontation.

Weather planning: A good executive protection specialist will not only take care of their own needs for inclement weather, but their principal’s as well. For our family, this means that I have stocked our cars with extra clothes for myself, my wife, and our kids. It’s nothing fancy…but it’s in place.

Redundancy and contingency plans: Redundancy and contingency planning are key principals, whether you’re doing executive planning, running a company or key project, doing activities in the back country, or just day to day life. Here are some specific areas that executive protection specialists focus on that you can benefit from.

  • Contingency meetup plans. As an example, “If we get split up, we’ll come back to this location every top-of-the-hour and half-hour and stay here for 5 minutes. If we don’t meet up after 3 hours, we’ll meet at home.”Or, “If an earthquake or similar event happens and we don’t have communications, I’ll pick up our son from school and we’ll all meet at home. If neither of us can get home or it’s untenable, we’ll post a note if possible and meet at Joe’s house. If that’s untenable, we’ll post a note if possible and meet at church.
  • Contingent communications plans. These could be cell phones, radios, whistles, or “If local phone service goes down, we’ll both get in touch with your sister (in another part of the country) by all means possible (phone, voice mail, text, email) and use her to get back in touch with each other
  • Have Primary, Alternate, Contingent, and Emergency (PACE) routes to your destination
  • Have PACE plans for medical care. I know where the hospitals are in my city. I also know where private surgical centers are, veterinarians, fire departments (Paramedics), veterinary supply stores, EMT supply stores, and basic drug stores like Walgreens…particularly in the parts of the city where I spend the most time.
  • When I travel to other cities, I spend about 5-10 minutes before I leave and find where these resources are located near where I’m going to be. I probably should memorize addresses, and phone numbers and/or write everything down like I would on a protective detail, but simply having a picture in my mind of where facilities are puts me WAY ahead of the curve.

On the topic of medical care, EPs who have medical and especially advanced trauma training are in higher demand and get paid more. Likewise, get all of the medical training you can justify and keep the supplies you need close at hand.

I don’t spend a ton of time on this. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that the simpler I keep my habits, the more likely I am to keep them as active habits.

Match the baseline. Everywhere you spend time has a “normal” or “baseline” look. Taking on this look is called, “becoming the ‘grey man’” and the discipline is called “cover for status.” At a dress ball, it may be formal wear.

At the beach, bikinis, Speedos, and other swim attire are the norm. At a park in the summer, it might be shorts and light weight shirts. At that same park in the winter, it might be heavy coats, hats, and gloves. Wear any of these four outfits at any of the other three settings and you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.

As a note, this can happen in a situation where you have to stop at a gas station on the way to a formal event, which, is another reason to plan ahead as often as possible.

In executive protections, there are basically two ways that you can go…overt and covert. Said another way, either look intimidating or look invisible by matching the baseline.

As a bodyguard for yourself or your family, it’s normally better to be the grey man and stay invisible. You can do this by not wearing excessive tactical clothing, using your peripheral vision to scan the room, and not acting like you’re on edge all of the time.

Just try to look as lost and confused as everyone around you. If a situation arises where you need to let someone know that you’re “switched on,” then that is still easy to switch into that mode.

Cover for status is also an important tool for identifying threats. Who doesn’t belong? Does the kid with the droopy pants and the puffy coat and the crooked ball cap smoking in front of the 7-11 at noon on July 4th fit in? Or is there a possibility that he’s looking for a victim?

“Cover for action” could be called the twin sister of “cover for status.” Cover for action is having your appearance match your actions. Climb a utility pole with shorts and a t-shirt on, and someone will probably call the cops.

Get out of a utility van wearing jeans, work boots, a tool belt, hard hat, and climbing gear and nobody will even remember seeing you climb the pole.

Ask someone their date of birth, social security number, sexual habits, and other private medical questions in a mall, and you’ll get slapped. Put on a nametag and hand someone a detailed survey on a clipboard with a 10c bic pen tied to it in a doctor’s office and they’ll tell you more than you REALLY want to know.

If you notice people who don’t have a cover for their actions, take it as a sign to pay closer attention to them.

Funnels and Channels. Funnels and channels are areas that restrict or control movement and make movement controllable and or predictable.  They’re something that you HOPE your enemy will go into if you’re trying to attack or ambush them. 

In the insect world, it’s where many cunning spiders spin their webs.  In the mouse world, funnels and channels are normally where we set traps in hopes of having the greatest chances of success.

Executive protection specialists try to avoid funnels and channels with high risk principals as much as possible.  Some examples are construction zones, underpasses, roads where traffic stops for trains, long hallways in malls, alleyways, gates into parking lots at night, or even walkways to your house.

Unless you consider yourself a high risk target, you probably don’t need to worry about being the specific target of an attack.  But this plays out in helping you keep from being a target of opportunity.  The practice of identifying funnels and channels combined with identifying multiple exits can make a speedy exit MUCH faster as well.

Movie theaters are an example of this concept that most people can relate to.  Normally, when the movie is done in a medium to large theater, everyone gets up and slowly waddles down the stairs and out one of two exits. 

The rows of seats create channels that funnel everyone to the isles, funnel everyone down the stairs, and funnel everyone back along the outside walls and back together to exit a common door.

If you’ve got to go to the bathroom, you know how agonizingly slow this can be.

But EVERY theater also has additional marked exits that people could go out.  At the front of the theater, at the back of the theater upstairs, or sometimes along the walls. 

These exits fight against the channeling and funneling that the aisles are trying to accomplish and let a few rebels get out quickly and efficiently.

By simply identifying these additional exits in advance, you can avoid unnecessary waiting during normal times and they could make the difference between surviving and dying after a fire, explosion, or natural disaster.

Where else does this play out?  Malls, churches, sporting events, offices, or anywhere else where large groups of people might have a planned or unplanned incentive to move at the same time.

Give as few (accurate) details as possible. Details help predators identify targets, opportunities, and the best times to strike.  For executive protection specialists, you can increase your safety level considerably by keeping your day’s itinerary and other plans as secret as possible.

The same holds true for individuals, but this is a TOUGH one for social people.  We don’t tell people where we live, unless we’ve invited them over.  I rarely use my last name.  Oftentimes, we make up a name to use at restaurants. 

When we go out of town, we hardly tell anyone…and when we DO tell people that we’re going out of town, we do it in private.  And, we don’t talk about what we own.  This makes for some awkward situations with overly curious people, but I’ve learned to accept that.

A good friend of mine has had the opportunity to do some VERY impressive things, both in the civilian sector and in the military.  He’s accomplished things in both arenas that make him a ripe target for all sorts of bad guys. 

When his family goes on vacation, they not only use a different last name, but he also says that he’s a history professor at the local community college.  That shuts off conversations with the majority of people who don’t like discussing history and provides great conversation with those few who DO like discussing history.

You’re going to have to figure out how open or covert you want to live…and then accept the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to be both social and covert.  Family and friends who you talk with in confidence may or may not understand your desire to stay covert. 

Even if they do, the passage of time tends to make people think, in error, that things that you once told them in secret are now open to the public.

Keep loved ones on your weak side. When guarding a principal, bodyguards keep their principal on their weak side so that they can push/pull them to cover AND use their primary weapon.  When I walk with my wife, she’s always on my left hand side. 

When I carry either of my sons, it’s with my left arm.  If we’re all together, my wife knows that if something happens, her job is to get our boys to safety and it’s my job to distract, defend against, and/or destroy anyone trying to hurt them.

Spare food & hydration. Almost every EP professional I know keeps SOME spare food with them or near them at all times.  For the most part, it’s something simple like a small water bottle that they drink and refill whenever possible and a meal replacement bar.  In their vehicle, it might be a case of meal replacement bars and a case of water bottles, or something similar.

In addition to the general guidelines mentioned above, here are some location/situation specific guidelines that EP professionals use that you can implement immediately.

Around The House

When returning home, do a quick check to make sure that your “castle” hasn’t become someone else’s “castle” while you were gone.  Are any lights/windows broken?  Are multiple security lights suddenly malfunctioning?  Are pets responding normally?  Is your door locked?  Does your alarm beep like it should when you open your door?

As a quick note, during “normal” times, if you know that an intruder is in your house, your best course of action is to call 911 and retreat to somewhere where you can provide updates, descriptions, and take pictures.

On this topic, are your firearms secured so that an intruder won’t be able to find them and use them on you?  If you don’t carry weapons, do you know where traditional and improvised weapons are near your door?

I LOVE fire extinguishers. Quoting Clint Smith, “Spray them with the white stuff and hit them with the red thingy.”  Do you have plenty of metal fire extinguishers?  New fancy compact fire extinguishers have their place, but it’s hard to beat the versatility of a big old metal fire extinguisher.

What is normal? Observe what normal is…for your neighbors, for your neighborhood.  Cars, coming & going, etc.  It will not only alert you to people and events that are out of the ordinary, but it will also help you get to know your neighbors better. 

You’ll quickly see who’s social, who races off every morning with a scowl on their face, who always waves and has a smile, etc.  You’ll also see who notices you and who is oblivious to the world and completely un-aware.

In your car

Proper reaction gap. Everyone knows that you should keep a 2 second gap between you and the car in front of you during ideal conditions.  I increase this to 3-4 seconds if either the car in front or the car behind me are tailgating.  In the case of the car in back, they’ll usually go around if I give them enough room.

See the bottom of the tires in front of you. When you pull up to a stopped car at a light or stop sign, make sure that you stay back far enough so that you can see the pavement and bottom of the tires of the vehicle in front of you. 

In general, this will put you far enough back that you can go around them without having to back up first.  This guideline will put shorter people a little further back than they need to be and taller people a little closer than they need to be, so you’ll want to experiment some.

Timing. With EP details, drivers do their best to miss regular traffic jams, trains, and other predictable delays.

Identifying potential threats.  For EPs, this includes ambushes, attacks, and embarrassing situations.  For the mere mortal, it means identifying and avoiding unnecessary risks.  As an example, I live in earthquake country.  I know where chemical plants are near me and know how to avoid them if necessary.  Identifying dangerous parking lot or low light situations is another example of this.

Surveillance detection.  Detecting a tail may be a life or death situation for the principal of an EP.  For you and me, it may not be life or death, but it is still a smart thing to do.  You may have accidentally cut off a driver who got laid off, lost his dog, and who’s wife left him that day and not even realize it.  I have a handful of turns between the interstate and my house.  If anyone follows me for more than 2 of these turns, I turn early or late to see if they keep following me.  I’ve pre-identified routes that I can take that only add 30-60 seconds to my drive.

Thankfully, since I don’t have any clear and present threats, this discipline will hopefully never protect my family from a violent attack.  That being said, the cost of developing it over the last few years is basically non-existent.  If I ever do NEED the skill, I won’t have to learn it under stress and I will have had years of daily experience practicing it.

I will say this, though.  Being constantly aware of the cars behind me and their behavior DOES have everyday benefits.  While I can’t be sure of it, I would put money on the fact that my observation skills have kept me from being rear-ended multiple times.  I’ve pulled off to the side of the road multiple times when I’ve had to stop suddenly and I knew, from watching, that the person behind me was not paying attention to the road.

Alter your route and timing. High risk targets and protection details for high risk targets do everything they can to keep from having their movements be predictable.  At the most basic level, this means changing when and how you go to & from work and other regular appointments. 

Even if you’re not a high risk target, you might want to try different time & route combinations for your regular trips so that you can become more aware of your area and to see if there isn’t a quicker combination.  AT LEAST become aware of your habits and the things you would change if you needed to become unpredictable.

Overpasses. This one has personal significance for me.  In many African, Central American, and South American countries, bandits will throw logs, cinder blocks, and tree trunks off of overpasses to disable vehicles so that they can rob or kidnap the occupants.  This happened to a very good friend of mine in Mexico City when we were in college.

Her mom, brother, and her were on their way home from the airport at night when her brother (driving) saw a couple of kids throwing a tree trunk off of an overpass they were about to go under.  There wasn’t really any time to react, but he did manage to swerve and have the tree trunk hit the side of their Jeep rather than the front. 

It blew their tire and they drove on the flat and then the rim, destroying the rim, until they got to help.  They didn’t get hurt, but another mom and daughter got killed later that night on the same road.

For day to day, low threat life, you don’t need to do much about this.  It’s not very common in heavy traffic, since the followup to throwing things is to rob the occupants of the vehicle.  It’s MUCH more common at night when traffic is light.  As the economy continues to slide, it is important to know what to look for and how to respond to this threat.

If you see one or more people standing on an overpass where it doesn’t make sense, stay in your lane until 1-2 seconds before going under the overpass and quickly change lanes.  As the practice gets more common and drivers get wise to it, the bandits get smarter too and start using teams, radios and throwing items off of the “back” side of the overpass instead of the “front” side.  When things develop to this point, it becomes wise to simply change lanes before going under an overpass.

In conclusion

There’s enough of an overlap between prepping and executive protection that I encourage everyone who can to go through one or more local executive protection classes.  Not only have I learned a considerable amount from going through the training, it has given me the opportunity to get to know some VERY highly skilled EP professionals.

I’ve found that, with rare exception, EP professionals and people who take EP classes are also preppers by nature.  Even better, by nature they have gamed out numerous scenarios in their heads, have their ideal teams in mind, defensible locations picked out, and are just looking for the right people to fill in the holes. 

If you go to a class with the same outlook, you’re likely to make some great long term friends who you can call on if the SHTF.

As an additional bonus, if you can get a non-prepper friend or family member to willingly take an EP class with you, “for fun,” you’ll probably leave the class with someone who’s become fully aware of the need to prepare.