It takes a special kind of person to voluntarily spend a week in the rainy woods of England. Fortunately, that’s exactly the sort of thing I enjoy doing.
What has this to do with International Security, I hear you ask?
I spent a week in February with GroundTruth Consulting, a small company that run crisis simulation exercises to train government officials for deployment overseas in hostile and disaster environments.
Their offices are based on an estate in the middle the Sussex countryside. I arrived on a sunny morning, and drove past deer and horses to their converted barn, I couldn’t believe that it was possible to work somewhere so beautiful and open and yet to be a short train ride from central London. It is very important to me to have some of my working time spent outdoors, and I would certainly have that opportunity working here.
I spent the day helping to set up the crisis simulation – i.e. putting up tents – and learning more about the business. But of course, the most interesting part was the exercise itself.
GroundTruth works with government staff, training teams for rapid deployment, such as diplomats who will be sent abroad at very short-notice to a crisis which involve British Nationals. This could include plane crashes, natural disasters or terror attacks, or even assisting the departure of Brits who are in a country experiencing a rapidly disintegrating security situation – think of any current conflict just before it became a conflict. Much of what they will do is providing consular and logistical support, though they will also provide an on-the-ground picture of the situation for the government back in London.
This puts people in situations that are understandably incredibly intense, pressurised and stressful – at times, decisions really could be life-or-death. Ensuring these people have the appropriate training is a tall order.
The Crisis Simulation
The teams undergoing training are put into a fully-immersive and incredibly realistic scenario which mirrors actual events, such as dealing with the aftermath of a terror attack or an evacuation abroad.
Actors are used to play the roles of British Nationals or locals abroad that are caught up in the situation. Several may appear to be severely wounded or are unable to find relatives or partners, whereas others may play helpful – or unhelpful – local authorities. In more extreme training courses, staff may even be ‘abducted’ or ‘arrested’ by hostile groups, so that participants can learn how to deal with hostage-type situations.
From my side, I was both an actor and helped out operationally behind-the-scenes. I was given the peculiarly morbid task of filling body bags to make them look somewhat realistic, as well as scattering debris around a nearby lake to make it resemble the aftermath of an ‘incident.’
I also shared the responsibility of manning the fictional country’s national switchboard and directing stressed trainee’s calls to various hospitals, morgues, embassies and government ministries. One lesson for me, was that there are only so many ways I can change my voice to make it almost sound like I’m a different person – I am not a natural. The American ambassador should certainly not sound the same as a doctor in a nearby field hospital, and neither of these should sound like the switchboard operator.
More practically, I also played the part of a foreign correspondent, though given the subject of a recent blog post, there was not too much acting needed for this. My role was to hound each of the teams undergoing training with questions which I demanded needed answering that instant. I was also there to test participants’ responses when I photographed their work and operations, and the British Nationals under their care.
The wide contrast between each teams’ handling of the press showed just how important positive media relations are in a crisis abroad. Ultimately, how events such as terror attacks are perceived back home, can be dependant more on press reporting than government’s response – reputational awareness is something which, in reality, must always be kept in mind even when horrific events are unfolding right in front of you.
Finally, I played a cleaner. Either that, or it was a sneaky way to get me to do some cleaning. All I’ll say is that it gave me a renewed healthy respect for people who work in facilities management and services industries.
As you can see, this is the first career that has ticked every single one of the boxes. It is a niche job that I never knew existed in an industry that keeps things on the quiet.
The only issue – I came wondering if I wanted to be the one receiving the training.