Jim Foster is an award winning cameraman and a former SAS soldier. He acts as an advisor to media teams in hostile environments. In this Question and Answer he explains what it takes to successfully operate in a hostile environment.
What kind of preparation do people need before going to a hostile environment?
A good course will equip individuals with the skills and confidence that will enable them to operate in difficult environments. Things like the medical training, an introduction to navigation and situational awareness training are all important but really when you are in a risky environment you need someone with experience to advise you. Different situations require different responses - civil war, embeds, riots - you need to be able to read what is going on around you and react accordingly. Being able to judge when things are going to turn very bad basically comes with experience. A good advisor will keep you on the right track. In such an environment it is imperative that people trust each other and their advisor. They should have gathered as much up to date intelligence as possible on their destination and the risk of the operation should be thoroughly assessed before departure.
Reporting teams are v. busy and focused on their job of getting a story and it needs someone who understands that but ensures that it can be achieved safely and with minimum threat to the team.
What are the most valuable parts of HEFAT course?
This can depend on the destination but on the whole the medical training is the most useful. Car accidents, stray bullets or shrapnel are all common accidents and emergency first aid if properly applied can save lives - if someone can patch you up until you can reach a hospital you’ve at least got a chance.
Situational awareness is also very useful - how to behave at road blocks, react to an IED explosion or aggressive riot police. A good course will give you the ability to assess risks and respond. It will also teach you to follow the advice of your security consultant. Frightened people can be as much a liability as reckless ones. A course should give them the confidence to remain calm in tough situations.
How can one prepare psychologically?
The best way to prepare psychologically is to be informed. If you know what kind of situation you are facing you have removed the biggest fear - the fear of the unknown.
As an advisor I always gauge the level of risk within the parameters of the most vulnerable member of the group. If someone is uncomfortable or afraid they won’t be able to do their job properly making the whole mission pointless.
Good preparation and planning are crucial. All risks must be assessed and addressed by everyone involved. Communicating what the risks are and how they can be mitigated is key.
Are there any new potential threats?
Technology has made us more vulnerable. Satellite phones and twitter accounts etc can be tracked. In Syria and Ukraine journalists were warned not to use comms too often as they were being monitored. People died if they ignored this advice.
What have been the most important lessons you’ve learnt from all your time working in difficult, complex situations?
I’ve learnt the balance between managing your risk vs it’s only TV. When working with news crews it’s crucial to keep perspective. Yes it’s important to get to the story, get the great video but is it worth risking your life? No.
I only push the boundaries when I understand the environment and am very cautious while I’m assessing it.
I’ve built up my cultural awareness. As an example, Russians are well-trained soldiers and can shoot accurately unlike some Syrian militants who don’t know how to aim.
I think everything through, if it doesn’t feel right I adjust the plan.
When we followed the militias into Tripoli (Jim was the cameraman with Sky News’ Alex Crawford who won several awards for her coverage of the fall of Col Gaddafi) we understood the battle movements, knew the individuals involved and adapted our strategy to safely cover the story. We were at the heart of the story and our risks were managed.
What advice do you have for someone considering going to a hostile environment?
Get good advice and on the ground knowledge before you go anywhere. Act with common sense, find the right balance between taking risks to get the story and staying safe. It’s important that you are calm in the environment you are working in. Be informed - talk to as many people as possible, find out as much as you can from a wide variety of sources. Find a good fixer and pay them well. The maxim of ‘pay monkey nuts you get monkeys’ holds true!
Foster works with Assaye Risk in designing bespoke Hostile Environment and First Aid Training Courses for the media and other organisations that operate in such environments. They also provide top-level field risk advisors for clients on assignment in hostile environments. www.assayerisk.com