Intense Training Prepares Journalists for War

ByABC News
January 30, 2006, 12:54 PM

Jan. 30, 2006 — -- When journalists from major media organizations head into a war zone, they typically go armed with specialized training that could save their lives if something goes wrong.

Many media companies now send their staffs to specialized war training classes to learn basic survival skills and to raise their awareness of the different dangers they might face.

During one "very intense" war zone training program designed for reporters, the instructors emphasized such key points as staying calm during a crisis and assessing the situation carefully, said Jean Fievet, 31, an ABC News assignment editor.

"It certainly brought home the risks involved with reporting in hostile environments," said Fievet, who recently completed a weeklong course near London.

Two of the best-known private firms that specialize in war training are Centurion Risk Assessment Services and AKE Integrated Risk Solutions. Former members of the British military run both companies. The Pentagon also offers a weeklong class for journalists likely to be embedded with a military unit in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Some nonprofit organizations have also stepped in to offer low-cost or free training in countries where there is conflict or violence against journalists.

ABC News sends its staff to Centurion Risk Assessment for a five-day course called Hostile Environments and First Aid Training, which is held either in the United States or England. Centurion prides itself on helping people save lives. Its mission statement reads, "Danger knows no frontier, and press cards do not stop bullets. Even with the best of training, journalists can become casualties."

The course teaches people to identify and evaluate risks to their safety and security, whether the danger stems from disease and faulty hygiene, or land mines.

Students simulate a number of life-threatening scenarios, such as being taken hostage, enduring captivity and crossing border checkpoints; the course also trains students in how to use weapons. To make the training as relevant as possible, many of the situations re-create actual incidents encountered by media and aid workers.

Centurion also uses theatrical pyrotechnics to re-create the nerve-racking roar of machine-gun crossfire or mine explosions.

"The many scenarios, mostly held outdoors, were as realistic as possible," said Fievet, adding that the instructors' specialized military training and their countless hours in war zones with journalists added another dimenson.

ABC News correspondent Miguel Marquez, who spent a month in Iraq, agrees.

"Those scenarios are helpful, because they demonstrate how chaotic situations can become," he said. "While there, one is always aware of the danger, and it's very easy to get on edge about whether you're going to get caught up in something that you can't control."

The staff understands a journalist's dilemma, Fievet said. Reporters have to cover stories while also taking into account the risks to their personal safety.

"Be careful not to make a situation worse," Fievet said. One of the first scenarios he participated in involved a man being shot by a sniper. "I charged out there and the instructor informed me that I was putting myself in harm's way by doing that, considering someone had a gun," he explained.

Like Centurion, AKE blends lectures and practical scenarios supported by video footage and demonstrations. The interactive exercises test each student's retention of the classroom information.

AKE's intended its five-day course, called Surviving Hostile Regions, for news teams and individuals working in challenging or hostile areas.

"We aim to teach as much as possible about hostile environments," said Iain Donald, head of risk consultancy and intelligence at AKE. The more context individuals have, the more prepared they will be, since no two situations are ever alike, he said.

He described the full-weapons lecture, which focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of weapons so that if reporters in Africa see militia men with AK-47s, they will know the range and the risks involved.

Donald believes firmly in his company's training classes, adding that there is no point going out in the field without being informed.

"Our approach is that everything has to be led by intelligence with specific training and with a full array of the risks, he said.

In business since 1993, AKE has expanded its courses and designed area-specific training, with a new focus on Iraq.

Fievet believes his training was invaluable, adding that he learned the importance of taking precautions at all times.

Marquez also points out that taking such precautions is a matter of course for the military and people living there.

"What is amazing to realize," said Marquez, "is the fear of uncertainty that we feel is what Iraqis and U.S. soliders deal with every day."