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An Overview of Security Awareness Overseas
Released as a brochure by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Overseas
Security Advisory Council (OSAC), November 1995,
There is nothing that contributes so much to our sense of security
and self confidence as knowing we are prepared for potential crises.
This pamphlet provides assistance in preparing us to face those
emergencies we may encounter traveling, working, or living overseas.
Cultural misunderstandings and inadequate local support services
often make crises abroad more intense than similar situations
in the United States. Overseas, we must assume greater responsibility
for our own safety.
But many potential overseas crises may be eased or averted by
taking the time to read and study the information that follows.
Information and suggestions in this pamphlet have been collected
from several government and private sources. Personal experiences
of those who have experienced emergencies abroad have added substantial
validity to our advice. The experience of each person--whether
hostage, crime victim, evacuee, or other, is distinct. Yet there
are common threads that provide guidelines on how to handle crises
successfully. It is our hope that you will find this information
useful as you travel, work, or live abroad.
Have Your Affairs in Order
- Discuss and plan with your family what should be done in the
case of an emergency situation.
- Supply family and close friends with numbers to notify in
- Update all important papers. Leave originals with a family
member or an attorney and carry only copies to your overseas assignment.
Your collection of important papers might include:
- Birth and marriage certificates
- Guardianship or adoption papers for children
- Power of attorney for spouse or relative
- Naturalization papers
- Deeds, mortgages, stocks and bonds, car titles
- Insurance papers, car, home, life, personal effects, medical
- Tax records
- Proof of termination of any previous marriages
- Obtain an international driving permit.
- Prepare a wallet card identifying your blood type, known allergies,
required medications, insurance company, and name of person to
contact in case of emergency.
- Use hard, lockable luggage with concealed luggage identification
- Give your office a complete itinerary. Be sure to notify the
local company manager of your travel plans.
- Obtain the name, address, and telephone numbers of the local
office or offices you will be visiting.
- Obtain a small amount of local currency if possible.
- Plan for emergency notification to you. Your family should
be given the following telephone numbers: U.S. Embassy, corporate
security, local company office, U.S. Department of State, and
the Red Cross.
- Stay informed! Check for any Travel Warnings pertinent to
countries you plan to visit.
- Inform a family member of specific travel plans.
If you plan to stay in one country for a length of time, especially
a country that is in a period of civil unrest, register with the
embassy or consulate and provide a copy of your itinerary. Registration
makes it easier to evacuate in case of an emergency.
On the Plane
- Carry-on luggage should contain a supply of any regularly
taken prescription medicines, an extra pair of eyeglasses, passport,
and carefully chosen personal documents (copies only!).
- Dress inconspicuously to blend into the international environment.
- Do not discuss business or travel plans with fellow passengers.
- Select a window seat in the coach section. This position is
less accessible by hijackers inflicting indiscriminate violence.
- Memorize your passport number so you do not have to reveal
your passport when filling out landing cards.
At an Overseas Airport
Maintain a low profile and avoid public areas as much as possible.
- Check in quickly and do not remain in the main terminal area.
- Survey surroundings, noting exits and safe areas.
- Stay away from unattended baggage.
- Always maintain custody of your carry-on bag.
- Stay on your guard against pickpockets and petty thieves while
in a bus or train terminal or at a taxi stop.
- Avoid carrying a wallet in your hip or easily accessible coat
- Take only licensed taxis. Generally those found in front of
terminals and the better hotels are the safest.
- Have the address of your destination written out in local
language and carry it with you.
- Get a map and learn the route to your destination. Note if
taxi driver takes you a different or longer way.
- Try not to travel alone in a taxi and never get out in deserted
- Stay alert in your hotel. Put the "Do not Disturb"
sign on your door to give the impression that the room is occupied
while you are out.
- Call the maid when you are ready for the room to be cleaned.
- Consider leaving the light or TV on when you are out of the
- Carry the room key with you instead of leaving it at the front
- Do not accept packages or open the door to workmen without
verification from the front desk.
- Stay in the most modern hotels; consider a U.S. chain.
- Request a lower floor, ideally the second or third.
- Locate exits and stairways as soon as you check in; be sure
the doors open.
- If the hotel has a fire alarm system, find the nearest alarm.
- Ensure that your room windows open and that you know how the
- Check the smoke detector by pushing the test button. If it
does not work, have it fixed or move to another room.
- Keep the room key and a flashlight on the bedside table so
that you may locate the key quickly if you have to leave your
If a Fire Starts
- If you awake to find smoke in your room, grab your key and
crawl to the door on your hands and knees; fresher air will be
near the floor.
- Before you open the door, feel it with the palm of your hand.
If the door is hot, the fire may be right outside. Open the door
slowly. Be ready to slam it shut if the fire is close by.
- If your exit path is clear, crawl into the hallway. Stay close
to the wall to avoid being trampled.
- Do not use elevators during a fire.
- As you make your way to the fire exit, stay on the same side
as the exit door. Count the doors to the exit.
- When you reach the exit walk down the stairs to the first
floor. If you encounter heavy smoke in the stairwell, turn around
and walk up to the roof fire exit.
- If all exits are blocked or if there is heavy smoke in the
hallway, you will be better off staying in your room.
- If you know your plan of escape in advance, you will be less
likely to panic and more likely to survive.
In some areas of the world, civil unrest or violence directed
against Americans and other foreigners is common. Travelers should
be alert to indicators of civil unrest and take the following
precautions in the event of such situations:
- If in your hotel, stay there.
- Contact your local office representative.
- Do not watch activity from your window.
- Choose an inside room, which provides greater protection from
gunfire, rocks, grenades, etc.
- If you are caught outside in the middle of a riot or unrest,
do not take sides or attempt to gather information. Play the role
of the tourist who just wants to get home to his or her family.
The likelihood of terrorist incidents varies according to the
country or area of the world. However, experience has shown that
even in the most stable countries, terrorists have struck.
Terrorists may shadow an intended victim at length and with infinite
patience before an actual abduction or assassination is attempted.
- Make their job tougher by not being predictable. Eat at different
times and places. Stagger professional and social activities;
do not play tennis "every Wednesday at three," for example.
- Be particularly observant whenever you leave your home or
office. Look up and down the street for suspicious vehicles, motorcycles,
mopeds, etc. Note people near your home who appear to be repair
personnel, utility crew teams, even peddlers. Ask yourself if
they appear genuine.
- Know what is normal in your neighborhood and along your commute
routes, especially at choke points. If you know what is ordinary,
you will notice anything extraordinary, people who are in the
wrong place or dressed inappropriately, or cars parked in strange
- Know the choke points on your routes and be aware of other
vehicles, vans, or motorcycles as you enter those bottleneck areas.
Search out safehavens that you can pull into along the route.
- Drive with windows rolled up to within 2 inches of the top
and lock all doors.
- Always speak guardedly and caution children to do the same.
Never discuss travel or business plans within hearing of servants.
Surveillants consider children and servants to be a prime source
of information. Always assume that your telephone is tapped.
- If you become aware of surveillance, do not let those watching
you know you are aware of them. And certainly never confront them.
Immediately notify your appropriate company representative.
- Blend in with the other airline passengers.
- Avoid eye contact with your captors. Remember there may be
other hijackers covertly mixed among the regular passengers.
- Stay alert, but do not challenge the captors physically or
verbally. Comply with their instructions.
- If interrogated, keep answers short and limited to nonpolitical
- Carry a family photo; at some point you may be able to appeal
to captors' family feelings.
- Minimize the importance of your job.
- Give innocuous reasons for traveling.
- If taken hostage, your best defense is passive cooperation.
You may be terrified, but try to regain your composure as soon
as possible and to organize your thoughts.
- Being able to behave rationally increases your chances for
- The more time that passes, the better your chances of being
Each captivity is different, but some behavior suggestions apply
- Try to establish some kind of rapport with your captors.
- Plan on a lengthy stay and determine to keep track of the
passage of time.
- Manage your time by setting up schedules for simple tasks,
exercises, daydreaming, housekeeping.
- Build relations with fellow captives and with the terrorists.
- Maintain your physical and mental health; it is critical to
exercise body and mind.
- Keep your mind active; read anything available. Write, even
if you are not allowed to retain your writings. If materials are
not available, mentally compose poetry or fiction, try to recall
Scripture, design a house, even "play tennis" (as one
- Take note of the characteristics of your captors and surroundings.
- You can expect to be accused of working for the government's
intelligence service, to be interrogated extensively, and to lose
Finally, it's worth keeping in mind three facts about terrorism:
- The overwhelming majority of victims have been abducted from
their vehicles on the way to or from work.
- A large number of people taken hostage ignored the most basic
- Terrorist tactics are not static. As precautions prove effective,
terrorists change their methods. There is a brief "window
of vulnerability" while we learn to counter their new styles.
Many evacuations have taken place in past years for reasons of
political instability, acts of terrorism, and natural disasters.
- Be prepared. Assume an evacuation could occur at any point.
- Determine the "who and where" with your family.
Who should be contacted and where your family would go in case
of an extended evacuation.
- Establish a line of credit to cover emergencies. Obtain individual
credit cards for you and your spouse.
- Know the emergency evacuation plan of the school if your children
are with you.
- Keep a small bag packed with essentials: clothing changes,
snack food (dry, nonperishable), bottled water, medications.
- In your residence, group important papers together along with
checkbooks, U.S. credit cards, some traveler's checks, a small
amount of cash and U.S. driver's license.
- Maintain a basic emergency supply of food, water, gasoline,
and first-aid supplies.
- In the event an evacuation order is given, it is crucial for
parents to discuss with children what is going to happen.
- Establish a daily routine with the children as soon as possible
after evacuation and relocation.
Culture shock is the physiological and psychological stress experienced
when a traveler is suddenly deprived of old, familiar cues--language,
customs, etc. Both the seasoned traveler and the first-timer,
whether in transit or taking up residence, are susceptible. Culture
shock is most prevalent in the second or third month after arrival
when the novelty of the new country fades. Traveler disorientation
is a form of culture shock.
Symptoms to watch for in adults and children include:
- Sleepiness, apathy, depression
- Compulsive eating or drinking
- Exaggerated homesickness
- Decline in efficiency
- Negative stereotyping of nationals
- Recurrent minor illnesses
The trauma of culture shock is most successfully dealt with if
- Realize that operating in a new setting with strange sights,
sounds, smells, and possibly a new language, is a different experience
for each person in the family.
- Communicate with each other; have patience and be understanding.
- Exercise! Lack of proper rest, diet, and exercise aggravate
culture shock stress symptoms.
- Use the support system of experienced associates. Begin to
participate in the life of the new country to whatever extent
HELPING CHILDREN ADJUST
Before the Move
- Set the stage with children before the transfer process begins.
- Bring up selected subjects during routine activities--dinner
or a weekend hike.
Talk to Them About
- Cultural restrictions. Help children accept the local mores
rather than resent them.
- Health precautions. They may require shots or pills to prevent
the onset of local diseases.
- Stress factors. Discuss with them the stress placed on a family
by such a move and how they can relieve it.
- Settling children into a daily routine helps them adjust more
successfully to any situation.
- Encourage children to be physically active.
Security Tips for Children
Children must be taught:
- To keep a parent in sight in public places and to go to a
store clerk if lost and in need of help.
- Not to go anywhere with anyone without a parent's permission.
- A password known only to family and close friends.
- Not to accept packages or letters from people you do not know.
- To know at least key phrases in the local language.
- To let someone know their location at all times.
Security Tips for Parents
Parents need to:
- Teach your child never to get into a car or go into a house
without your permission. Do not leave your child alone in a public
place, even for a moment.
- Be certain your children know your home address and telephone
- Train children not to give personal information over the phone,
even though the caller purports to be a friend.
- Explain the importance of never divulging any information
in front of strangers.
- Caution children to always keep doors locked and never to
unlock a door to a stranger without adult approval.
- Listen when your child tells you he or she does not want to
be with someone--there may be a reason.
Checklist for Babysitters
- Ensure all doors and windows are locked and that doors are
not opened to anyone.
- Do not give out any information over the telephone. Simply
state Mr. X or Mrs. X cannot come to the phone right now. Take
- Never leave the children alone, even for a minute.
- Know the dangers to children of matches, gasoline, stoves,
deep water, poisons, falls.
- Know the locations of all exits (stairs, doors, windows, fire
escapes) and phones in case of emergency.
- Know the names and ages of children.
Stress During Crisis
A crisis is best handled collectively. Parents, teachers, family,
and friends can play a part in helping any child handle a crisis.
Adults should support each other in guiding children through the
crisis; there is no need to feel you are in this alone. Play groups
or support groups may be formed.
Parents and teachers are models. If they handle a crisis calmly,
children will be less anxious.
Children borrow strengths from adults around them. Help them put
labels on their reactions, encourage them to verbalize feelings.
Play is a natural form of communication for children, it will
discharge bottled-up feelings. If allowed to work through their
fears, most children will emerge strengthened from a crisis.
Children need to see you express your feelings of fear and grief,
too. By example, parents and other adults can show children how
these feelings are handled. it's important that they see not only
the expression of grief and sadness, but that they understand
that the feeling will pass.
Some parents attempt to protect children by not allowing discussion
about a crisis. The healthier route is to let them discuss it
until they can get some psychological distance from it. Verbal
repetition is a natural cathartic process.
If a child requires medical attention, someone from the immediate
family should stay with him or her. See that the procedures that
are to be done are explained to the child.
RESIDENTIAL FIRE SAFETY
Although fire does not sound as dramatic as terrorism, in fact
it kills far more people each year than does terrorist activity
overseas. In many countries fire regulations do not exist, firefighting
equipment is antiquated, water sources are inadequate, and buildings
are constructed with minimum standards.
Take these basic steps to protect your family from fire:
- Use smoke detectors in your home.
- Test smoke detectors monthly.
- Prepare a fire escape plan with your family.
- Conduct a fire drill at least once every 6 months.
Fire Escape Plan
- A fire escape plan is essential. With your family, draw a
floor plan of your house marking all possible exits.
- Show all windows, doors, and outdoor features. Note escape
aids such as a tree or balcony; check to ensure that they would
- Locate the nearest fire alarm box or the neighbor's house.
- Designate a meeting place outside the house.
- Tape a copy of the floor plan by the telephone.
- Practice your plan!
Every home should have at least one fire extinguisher and one
Use a fire extinguisher only after you:
- Are sure everyone else is out of the building.
- Have called the fire department.
- Are certain you can approach the fire safety.
A Summary of Fire Safety Reminders
- After a smoke detector warns you of a fire, you have only
a few moments to escape.
- Sleep with bedroom doors closed. A closed door can hamper
the spread of a fire and the chances of a fire starting in a bedroom
- To escape, keep low and crawl on hands and knees. The safety
zone of cleaner air is always near the floor.
- Once out, no one should be permitted to re-enter a burning
house for any reason. Hold on to children who may impulsively
run inside to retrieve a prized possession.
- Children panic in fire and tend to attempt hiding as a means
of escape. Train them to react correctly.
- Feel every door before you open it.
- If clothes catch fire, drop to the ground and roll to extinguish
flames, or smother the fire with a blanket or rug.
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