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Security Guidelines for American Families Living Abroad

A series of publications by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), produced November 1995, providing guidance, suggestions, and planning for the American traveler on a variety of security related issues.


Effective security precautions require a continuous and conscious awareness of the environment, especially when living in a foreign country. Security precautions lessen vulnerability to criminal and terrorist acts and greatly facilitate the assistance the U.S. Government can provide. Levels of risk in a foreign country can change very rapidly, sometimes overnight, and can be triggered by internal or external incidents or circumstances. Continually monitor the political climate and other factors that may impact the level of risk. Security precautions must be constantly reviewed so they may be adapted for effective response to changes in the level of risk.

Preliminary Residential Security Planning

Begin to develop a tentative residential security plan for yourself and all members of your family before leaving the United States. This is essential in providing you with guidelines for selecting a home and determining where your children will go to school, the type of car you will buy, the kind of clothing you will and will not wear, and the information required to live securely in your overseas location. This plan should progress from tentative to active.

Obtaining Information

Become informed about your new location. Much professional help is available for the family moving overseas. Major multinational corporations have large international travel and security departments that may serve as valuable resources. Contact the U.S. Government Printing Office at telephone number (202) 512-1800, or fax (202) 512-2158, to acquire current issues of the U.S. Department of State publications entitled Key Officers of Foreign Service Posts, Guide for Business Representatives and Background Notes for your country of assignment. Obtain a current political profile of the country to which you will be moving to aid you in assessing the level of risk. Study the culture and customs of the country. Use library sources and reference works. If you have school-aged children, obtain information and advice about schooling abroad from the Office of Overseas Schools at the U.S. Department of State, telephone number (703) 875-7800.

Assessing the Level of Risk

Two factors must be taken into consideration when evaluating the seriousness of the personal risk to you and your family when living abroad: a risk assessment of the location to which you will be moving and the profile of the company for which you work. The threat assessment designators below were formulated by the Department of State, Diplomatic Security Service, Intelligence and Threat Analysis Division. This assessment is available to the business community through the regional security officer (RSO) at the U.S. Embassy. Risk levels are defined as:

Location of a Residence

Choose a safe neighborhood. The local police, the RSO or Post Security Officer (PSO) at the nearest U.S. diplomatic post will facilitate this process. Pay particular attention to the condition of the streets. If possible, choose streets that are paved, wide, two-way, and maintained. Dense vehicular or pedestrian traffic facilitates retention of anonymity of criminals and surveillants.

Note the overall security precautions that are taken in the neighborhood such as barred windows, security fences, extensive lighting, or large dogs. Such visible precautions may indicate a high level of security awareness or a high-crime area. Examine the quality of lighting at night to determine whether it is sufficient to illuminate the entrances to homes in the area. Ensure that trees or shrubbery do not provide cover for an intruder.

The vast majority of kidnappings and other serious crimes occur close to the residence, when the victim is leaving or returning home. Therefore, it is essential that access routes to and from the residence provide sufficient alternatives that do not lock you into predictable patterns. Dead-end or one-way streets should be avoided. Underground parking, unless tightly controlled, should be avoided. Ideally, a garage that can be locked is the most suitable means of securing vehicles at single- family residences. Parking the car on the street should be avoided. Residing near friends or coworkers facilitates car pooling and observation of suspicious activities.

Selection of Residence

An apartment offers greater protection against intrusion than a single- dwelling home. A private or single dwelling affords greater opportunity to establish more rigid access control to the property. In certain high- and critical-crime threat areas, it may be prudent to consider the need for a safehaven in any residence. A safehaven should be furnished with a substantial door equipped with a deadbolt lock and a door viewer or a grill gate. Such a safe area should also possess reliable communications, such as a telephone, cellular telephone, or radio to contact help. Accessible windows and openings should be secured against forced entry.

After Moving In

Visit the U.S. Embassy or Consulate with your passport and register as soon as possible. Registration greatly facilitates emergency evacuation from the country of residence.

After moving in, immediately familiarize yourself with your new surroundings. Get acquainted with at least one neighbor without delay; you may need a neighbor in an emergency. Locate the nearest hospital and police station.

Assistance to Terrorist Victims

In the case of terrorist action against an American citizen or company, the embassy or consulate can facilitate communication with the home office and family of the victim, help establish useful liaison with local authorities, provide information, and suggest possible alternatives open to the family or company of the victim.

Emergency Preparations

Before an emergency, obtain emergency fire and safety equipment. Train family members and domestic employees in the use of emergency equipment. Know beforehand where you will turn for help. Participate in an alert- calling list. If such a list does not exist, create one. Be aware of host country fire regulations and telephone numbers. Determine if an emergency telephone call will be answered by someone who can understand English if you or family members do not speak the local language. Fill out and update yearly an Employee and Family Profile form and include current photos.

Perimeter Security

Generally, there are two lines of defense for a residence: the outer and inner perimeters. The outer perimeter of a single residence is ordinarily a property line; in an apartment or high-rise condominium, the outer lobby door functions as the external perimeter. Any perimeter barrier, even if it is only a symbolic hedge, serves as a deterrent by causing a intruder to commit an overt act to cross the barrier. Inner perimeters include grills and locks. Building exterior openings over 96 square inches in size on the ground floor or accessible from trees, vehicle tops, or porches may need to be covered by grills. At least one window grill in each section of the sleeping quarters should be hinged and equipped with an emergency release.

All primary residential entry doors should be equipped with both a primary (main locks with handles) and an auxiliary lock (deadbolt). All exterior locks, including the garage door and mailbox lock, should be changed before moving into a new residence abroad. Maintain strict key control on all exterior locks. Never hide an exterior door key outside the house. Install an intercom between the primary entrance and the inside foyer or unprotected area. You should consider removing all name identification from your gate and doors.

Alarms, Lighting, and Absences

In areas abroad where forced entry of a residence is commonplace, the use of a good residential alarm system is highly recommended. Security lighting should be an integral part of the intrusion system. The important elements of protective outdoor lighting are coverage and evenness of light. Lighting should illuminate the walls of the residence and the ground area adjacent to the perimeter walls. It also should illuminate shrubbery and eliminate building blind spots. It is a good idea to connect lighting to a photoelectric cell that automatically turns lights on at dusk and off at dawn. Ensure that all lighting systems are installed in compliance with local codes. Consider the installation of a diesel-powered auxiliary generator that turns on automatically when electric power fails; test the generator periodically to ensure it is in good working condition.

Extended absences present an intruder with the easiest opportunity to target a residence. While residents are away, automatic timers or photoelectric switches should turn on inside lights. Close friends or neighbors should be asked to look after the home. In many locations, it is advisable to have trusted domestic employees remain in the residence during extended absences.

Domestic Employees

Domestic employees can either be a valuable asset to residential security or a decided liability. The chances of obtaining the services of a reliable servant can be improved by hiring one employed and recommended by a friend, acquaintance, or neighbor. Prospective applicants should be required to produce references and should be interviewed thoroughly. It is wise to check references. Do not accept the candidate's word as to his or her name and date of birth without an authentic government document to back up his or her claim. Do not permit domestics of untested integrity and reliability in your home. Domestic help should be briefed on security practices. It is critical that household help be rehearsed and briefed from time to time to refresh their memories and to update previous instructions. Domestic employees, rather than members of the household, should be trained to answer the door. They should not be allowed to admit visitors without specific approval and should not unlock or open a door until visitors have been properly identified. Family plans and official business should not be discussed within the hearing of domestic employees.

Auto Travel

Potential victims of kidnapping and assault are probably most vulnerable when entering or leaving their homes or offices. Always carefully observe surroundings for possible surveillance upon leaving and returning. Never enter a car without checking the rear seat to ensure that it is empty.

Do not develop predictable patterns. If possible, exchange company cars or swap with coworkers occasionally. Know the location of police, hospital, military, and government buildings. Avoid trips to remote areas, particularly after dark. Select well-traveled streets as much as possible. Keep vehicles well-maintained at all times. When driving, keep automobile doors and windows locked. Be constantly alert to road conditions and surroundings. Never pick up hitchhikers. Carry 3 x 5 cards printed with important assistance phrases to aid with language problems.

Always carry appropriate coins for public phones. Practice using public telephones. Report all suspicious activity to the company security contact. Always lock the doors when parking a car, no matter where it is located.

Telephones and Mail

Do not answer the telephone by stating the name of the family or giving the residence telephone number in response to wrong-number calls. Be suspicious of any caller alleging to represent the telephone company. Be skeptical of telephone calls from strangers advising that a family member has been injured, followed by a request for another family member to leave the home immediately. Children should be advised not to converse on the telephone with strangers for any reason. When practical, home telephone numbers should be unlisted and unpublished. Emergency telephone numbers should be available for quick reference at each telephone in the home. A programmable telephone can be very useful during any emergency.

Businessmen should discourage the delivery of mail to their private residences. Family members and domestic help should not accept unexpected mail deliveries unless sure of the source. The door should not be opened to accept strange deliveries. Packages should be left by the door. Continuously remind yourself and others in the household to be suspicious of all incoming mail and parcels and to remain alert for the following danger signs:

If a parcel is at all suspicious, STOP further handling and call appropriate authorities.

Miscellaneous Items

It may be prudent to use major U.S. credit cards, as opposed to writing checks on local banks, to reduce the audit trail your financial transactions can leave. DO NOT imprint your home address or phone number on personalized checks.

You should be aware of the attitude of the government, police, and the populace toward other nationals, particularly Americans. A strong anti- American attitude may be cause for diminished police responsiveness. Where police capability is in doubt, the use of a private guard service should be considered. All guards should be subjected to a security check. At a minimum, guards should be physically capable of performing their shift duties during the normal workday. When children are to be picked up at school by anyone other than immediate family members, an established procedure should be coordinated with school officials to assure that children are picked up only by authorized persons. Children should be instructed in observing good security procedures.

In the event of a coup d'etat, establish contact, if not already done, and maintain contact with the nearest U.S. diplomatic post. DO NOT automatically pack and leave the country on your own initiative. Monitor local news media for any evidence of anti-American activity. In certain locations, it is recommended that adequate supplies of nonperishable foods and drinking water be stockpiled in the home to sustain family members for a reasonable period of time. Have a bag packed for each family member in the event you have to leave on short notice. An appropriate amount of currency and traveler's checks should be kept on hand. Maintain current passports and, where applicable, visas for a safehaven country.

Employees in high-threat areas should avoid social activities that are conducted at a set time and place, such as the same church service every Sunday morning. Each family member should be familiar with basic security procedures and techniques. Persons in high-threat areas should consider whether or not to participate in recreational or exercise activities that are conducted at a set time and place.

Despite repeated warnings, drug arrests and convictions of American citizens are still on the increase. If you are caught overseas with either soft or hard drugs, you are subject to local, not U.S., laws. All U.S. citizens living abroad should familiarize themselves with the selected laws of the host country, especially those relating to illegal drugs. All medicines containing habit-forming drugs or narcotics should be left in their original labeled containers; a copy of the doctor's prescription should be maintained.

Many people have been victimized by crime, and most individuals are acquainted with victims of crime. Yet, it is perhaps the most difficult job in the world to convince people to practice security and safety in their lives. Individuals must assume responsibility for their personal security and ensure that their loved ones do the same.