Did the company laptop make it through security? How much time do I have after landing to get to my hotel to change my clothes and charge my phone? What time is my first meeting? Did I bring the right presentation with me?
There’s a lot going through your mind when you are traveling for business. You’re probably not as aware of your surroundings as you would be at home and it didn’t cross your mind to research your destination(s) for health or safety risks. But there are ways to reduce your risk while traveling for business — such as practicing your situational awareness skills.
“Situational awareness is being alert to your immediate environment,” said Harding Bush, associate manager of operations at Global Rescue. “It is training your eye to actively observe your surroundings.”
This might mean, at the very minimum, putting your cell phone down. On the other side of the spectrum, this could mean mentally planning an exit strategy when a street-side protest starts to spiral out of control.
Even if your company has conducted a site assessment and has risk management protocols in place, you can also boost your own personal safety by improving your situational awareness.
Bush, a 20-year special operations forces veteran with an additional nine years of experience in international and corporate travel security, offered these quick tips to help you be more aware of your surroundings while traveling.
1. Use All Your Senses
Get your eyes off the phone (or laptop) until you are familiar with your surroundings. You need all your senses to be aware.
2. Establish Normalcy
Establish a baseline of activity for your area. If you’re in an unfamiliar area, this will take some extra time. For example, avoid a laptop snatch-and-run by staying in the cab until you are completely ready. Make sure your phone is away, the driver is paid, your wallet is secure and the sidewalk and entrance to the building appears clear.
3. Conduct Baseline Strategy
Conduct the same baseline strategy when you enter a room. Note the location of people, chairs, tables and exits. It’s the same thing you do while driving. You note other cars, how fast they are going and the next off or on ramp. The more aware you are of your surroundings, the more likely you will be able to prevent dangerous situations from occurring.
4. Always Know Which Way Is North
This is easy in a city laid out in a grid like New York City. In an unfamiliar city, do a map study and be aware, for example, that the airport is south of your hotel and the office is north of the hotel, about a half mile past the river. Be able to describe your location in reference to a common recognizable feature. This will help when you need to let someone know your location or provide an accurate description of an incident.
5. Pay Attention
People’s attire, body language and behavior should be consistent with where they are and what they are doing. For example, uniformed building maintenance crew should not appear lost in their own building. A bike messenger should not get out of a taxi and a jogger shouldn’t stretch on a street corner for 30 minutes. Although these examples do not necessarily indicate surveillance, they require a second or extended look.
6. Enhance Memory And Recall
Practice memorization drills and exercises to enhance memory and recall. Start committing phone numbers (work, home, primary care provider, emergency contacts), addresses (work, home, embassies, local hospital) and other important numbers (social security number, Global Rescue phone number) to memory. Make a game of it. You won’t always have access to your cell phone in an emergency.
7. Have Something To Record Details
Always have a small notebook. You probably have a camera and a voice recorder on your mobile phone. Use them to record details. But be careful taking pictures, especially in other countries, as it could lead to a confrontation or arrest.
8. Be Alert
You don’t have to be on a high level of alert at all times, but you do need to be alert. This might mean slowing down and paying attention to your surroundings. Practicing situational awareness will not cause paranoia or fear — it will increase your confidence.
9. Observe Locals
Watch what the locals do. They know to stand behind the sidewalk because the busses stop on top of the curb. Ask the concierge for recommendations — without sounding like a cop.
“Drive the conversation naturally to elicit information from someone,” Bush said.
10. Watch for "Piggybacking"
You’ve swiped your card for entry, so do you hold the door open for the person behind you? If you’re practicing situational awareness, the answer is no.
When a person tags along with another person who is authorized for entry into a restricted area or pass a certain checkpoint, they are “piggybacking” or “tailgating.” Be aware of who is around you when entering a hotel, airport, parking garage or hospital.
When in doubt, always use common sense.
“Keen observation abilities will provide the necessary insight to mitigate risk,” Bush said. “Trust your gut. If something or someone seems out of place, you’re probably right.”
Global Rescue offers integrated travel risk and crisis management solutions to corporations, governments, academic institutions and NGOs. Click here to learn more.