I’m on my first mission, and it’s already going horribly wrong, thanks to a misplaced jacket, a broken elevator, sloppy handwriting, and a thick Caribbean accent.
Let me explain. Along with 36 current and aspiring security professionals, I’m nearing the end of an intensive course in executive protection (EP) training put on by R.L. Oatman & Associates in Towson, Maryland.
The sojourn spans seven days and 80 hours, most of it at our base at a Holiday Inn. From the instant the course begins, it’s clear that the corporate EP specialist’s duties are more personal service than Secret Service, more clock management than Glock management.
It’s the fifth day, and the class has been placed on its first protective detail, one in which we must protect our designated bosses—known in EP-speak as principals—for the next several hours. The task calls for conjuring up the barrage of information and techniques we’ve accumulated and spinning them into a graceful choreography that requires the combined skills of an executive assistant, a valet, an EMT, a chauffeur, a guardian angel, and, if need be, a superhero.
Students are grouped in teams of four. Mine consists of Dave, an equable ex-cop who now runs a protective detail for a Fortune 500 company in St. Louis; Doc, a terse Kentuckian who drives for Dave’s corporate detail; Andrew, a soft-spoken Trinidadian who works for the island’s Ministry of National Security; and me, a security journalist with zero operational experience. Course leader Bob Oatman plays the executive we must protect.
I’m in the driveway of the Holiday Inn, biding time in my car with Andrew as Dave retrieves our charge. I’ll be driving just ahead of the boss’s black armored Cadillac DeVille on a 45-minute trip from Towson, a suburb north of Baltimore, to Annapolis.
Suddenly, I realize that I left my sports jacket in my hotel room. We’ve been told that EP specialists should mirror their bosses in appearance, and Oatman always dresses nattily. He is expected to arrive at any moment, but I risk running upstairs anyway to retrieve the jacket. Big mistake.
Dashing into the hotel I remember that one of the elevators is broken, and a slew of people are waiting for the dawdling second elevator. I opt for the stairs, but they can only be accessed by going outside and around the building.
Taking two, three, four stairs at a time, I reach my room on the sixth floor, out of breath. I grab my jacket, fly back down the stairs, jump outside, turn the corner and…the Cadillac’s gone. Andrew’s waiting at my car. “They left,” he says. I had already lost my principal.
They can’t be far, I say, still hopeful that the mission can be salvaged.
Andrew has the MapQuest directions that I had obtained from a work colleague and scribbled down earlier when we were told where we would be driving our principal. Andrew begins to read the directions aloud, but through his soft, thickly accented voice drowned out by the engine, I can barely make out his words: “Go 29 miles on 955.”
955? There is no Route 955. Luckily, I recall the actual directions: “2.9 miles on 95S(outh).” This is when I realize that we’re on the edge of disaster. We’ve lost our principal, Andrew can’t read my handwriting, I can’t penetrate his accent, and he can’t drive in the United States. And the assignment has only just begun.
As became cruelly clear, working a detail is all about the details; the EP specialist thrives or fails based on the tiniest of particulars. And every inconvenience is magnified a thousandfold. In this scenario, the lessons boil down to: Fully understand your assignment, have everything you’ll need with you, and, if you’re going to write down directions, make sure that your colleague can read them.
The importance of scouting ahead is already clear from the broken elevator, and it’s reinforced when we get on the road and realize that not all the prescribed turns from the MapQuest directions can be made.
Fortunately, this was only a role-playing exercise—no one’s life was on the line—and I had not quit my day job. For most of the people who take this type of training, however, this type of work is—or soon will be—their day job, and the lessons they learn in this suburban outpost may someday help them prevent a real-life attack on executives in their charge.
The three essential components of any EP program are threat assessments, advance procedures, and protective operations. Following are key points concerning each of these facets based on the course I attended. Especially noteworthy is how the instructors, students, and exercises drove home principles that classroom teaching alone couldn’t convey.