Going on a Hostile Environment Training course
July 30, 2012 Leave a comment
“Being put under pressure is when the real learning kicks in. We’re not trained to be fully qualified medics, soldiers or mechanics. We’re trained to know how to deal with a hostile environment and how to get out alive.”
You know that the person blindfolding you before binding your arms together with a cable tie is acting. You know that when you’re forced to your knees and you feel the barrel of an assault rifle in the small of your back, it won’t go off. After being marched through woodland in a single file, blind and holding your colleagues’ shoulders to stop you from stumbling on undergrowth, you’re thrown into a disused farm building and kept there. You know you’re eventually going to be let out. A woman whimpering in the corner hasn’t really been raped by the militia you met at the checkpoint.
I was on a Hostile Environment Training course designed for journalists. I knew that I was surrounded by actors – but that didn’t stop my pulse rising. Acting out scenarios after being drilled with tips on first aid, survival and how to distinguish different kinds of weaponry is the closest a media worker can get to an actual emergency he or she could encounter on assignment, when the training should really kick in.
Like after the ‘bomb blast’, the crack of explosives going off near the room where I and ten other colleagues were being briefed. It caught us by surprise. Smoke billowed in from the courtyard. We ran out, helmets and flak jackets strapped on, grab bags and medi-packs swinging from our shoulders. We were confronted with a dozen blood-stained actors screaming and writhing on the ground.
In this scenario, we had to apply our first aid knowledge to treat the wounded civilians.
“This knowledge could stop a colleague from dying on you on your next dangerous assignment,” we were told.
We had ten minutes to treat them. The ‘platinum ten’ is the amount of time medics give themselves to treat those who need emergency medical attention. Working within this time frame saves lives.
Some civilians weren’t moving. Some were writhing on the ground, screaming, clutching at our bandages, begging for water. A man with plastic guts spilling out of his abdomen was sprawled across the bonnet of a car. He was beyond help.
There was a lot of noise, a lot of smoke and a lot of blood. In the confusion, I ran to the person who was screaming the loudest. His hand had been blown off – I could see plastic gore and bone protruding from a stump at the end of his arm. I quickly bandaged him the way I’d been taught to during a gruelling 8 hour session on first aid and battlefield medicine the day before.
“We’re not teaching you to be medics,” we were told. “We’re teaching you to keep somebody ticking over until you can get help and get out.”
During my debriefing I realised that I had gone to treat the wrong casualty first.
“You have to focus on the ones who are quiet. The loudest ones are the ones who are most likely to live.”
Although we’d been told this the day before, the instinct to help the person who sounded like he was in the most pain was difficult to resist in the heat of the moment. Even in a set up scenario, a lot of the information I thought I’d learnt was lost amidst the gore, smoke and screaming.
You can read as many books as you like on first aid – but it is only through these training scenarios that you can get an idea of how you might act in a real emergency situation.
A picture of a bullet wound and passing a flutter valve around a classroom is essential for learning, but tearing one out of a medi-pack and applying it to a sucking chest wound while your ‘patient’ is screaming for help is better training.
Similarly, being told how to cooperate at a checkpoint makes a lot more sense when what you are told is put to practice: trying to bribe militia with smiles, candy and cigarettes before you realise that you’re about to be detained. The disorientation I felt when I was blindfolded, taken out of my vehicle and hurled abuse at is difficult to replicate through theory-based learning.
And being advised where to duck and cover in gunfire makes a lot more sense when you’re trying to run to the low grounds of a field with your flak jacket on. Just having the heavy jacket on my small frame gave me a sense of what I might be up against if I really had to run for my life.
Two days of being drilled on everything from first aid and battlefield medicine, to basic vehicle maintenance and repair, to distinguishing between different kinds of gunfire and what an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) looks like, really stuck when what I learned was put into practice. In the classroom I felt like I’d remember it all – but during the scenario, trying to keep a level head to apply my knowledge, based on split-second decisions, was a lot more challenging.
It is this sense of urgency bordering on panic that my colleagues and I needed in order to learn how to cope. During the infamous kidnap scenario, we had blacked-out goggles put over our faces. My colleagues suggested that next time, our captors use a bag to put over our heards – a technique ditched after some journalists on previous courses experienced high levels of panic, a fear of suffocation and even terrifying flashbacks from real life kidnap situations.
My colleagues were adamant that this sense of fear had to be installed, just to try to learn how to deal with a real kidnap situation.
Being put under pressure is when the real learning kicks in. We were not trained to be fully qualified medics, soldiers or mechanics. We were trained to know how to deal with a hostile environment and how to get out alive.
It is this knowledge that saves lives.
INSI urges all correspondents to have HE training before going to cover war, or any other type of conflict – there is considerable evidence it can save lives.