How Private Security Contractors can Save Lives

 Lessons From a Tunisian Car Crash

I almost died a couple of days ago in a banal traffic accident. A car crossed in front of us on the highway, stalled, and we crashed into it going about 50-60 miles an hour. Fortunately, the driver controlled the vehicle as it ground to a halt, allowing all four of us to get out of there in one piece. She took most of the shock upon herself, suffering wounds on both her hands and a concussion.

Though personally affected, I have little broad insights to draw from the accident itself. It’s the aftermath that proved interesting, and particularly how involving a private security firm did and did not help.

Traffic accidents are one of the most frequent and obvious ‘Black Swans” for individuals; unexpected, low probability events that can change your life forever, even end it. World-wide, 3,500 people die on the roads every day, according to the WHO. It’s the 6th preventable cause of death worldwide, expected to bump up to 3rd by 2020. It’s a ‘disease’ that disproportionally targets the young: “Road crashes kill 260,000 children a year, injure about 10 million and are the leading cause of death among 10-19 year olds”. As with many such epidemics, the developing world suffers the most.

Deaths for road traffic accidents per 100,000 inhabitants in 2004.File:Road traffic accidents world map - Death - WHO2004.svg


In considering what we can do about this immensely complex issue, let’s bypass questions of pre-crash and during crash mitigation. These are largely systematic failures in infrastructure, policing and driver awareness which only widespread government policy can address. I want to focus on the post-crash scenario, where a proper response to this Black Swan can mean the difference between life and death.

First, the importance of preparing yourself and those around you for such eventualities. Three days of training made me a certified emergency responder, and another day made me first aid certified. Though minimal, this preparedness delivered some tangible benefits:

a) I did not panic, instead I checked myself for injuries and assessed the situation.

b) I proceeded to check my fellow passengers for visible injuries and internal bleeding, as well as secure our belongings from the wreck.

c) I helped care for the driver, who was rapidly becoming incoherent and babbling. Fearing shock, I had her lie down, raises her legs and soother her while we waited for help. She wasn’t in shock, but had she been those simple gestures might have saved her life.

Look at the following table from the WHO World Report on Traffic Injury Prevention. 60-80% of deaths from car accidents happen before the hospital, with the greatest proportion in the poorest countries. This means that there is a lot of room for improvement before the ambulances get there.

Proportion of roads deaths by setting in three cities
Setting Kumasi, Ghana (%) Monterrey, Mexico (%) Seattle, USA (%)
Pre-hospital 81 72 59
Emergency room 5 21 18
Hospital ward 14 7 23

Private security firms or departments come in when the existing emergency response system is weak or incomplete. They are responsible for the safety and well-being of their firm’s employees, both locals and expats. In most countries, a car accident is by far the likeliest source of danger, and they can do something about it. My mother’s second call was to her employer’s security firm, and accident victims will and should do the same. Depending on the situation, they can serve as first responder, provide care and transport to a hospital, as well as arbitrate with the relevant authorities.

Our private security firm proved woefully inept. They had minimal knowledge of the city, it took them over two hours to pick us up at the crash sight, and they spoke neither Arabic nor French. Having to interpret, guide and occasionally instruct them throughout the day, I compiled the following checklist for all such firms who wish to maximize their effectiveness:

Road Response Checklist

  1. Response Vehicle: A solid car with a full tank of gas, equipped with a robust first aid kit, liquids & blankets. Can act as makeshift ambulance. Note that this also implies bureaucratic clearance to respond quickly without miles of red tape.
  2. Navigational Know-how: Map of relevant zone of operations, knowledge of how to navigate it and locate relevant points (embassy, police station, hospital)
  3. Translator: At least one member of the response team who speaks one or several of the local languages.
  4. Investigative Equipment: Ability to collect evidence in case of judicial proceedings (camera, notepad, recording device)
  5. Legal Awareness: Familiarity with local traffic laws and procedures.
  6. Contacts: Established liaisons with relevant medical and police authorities.
  7. Cash: For anything from buying a bottle of water to enticing the hospital attending to find you a room.

Disclaimer: Not exhaustive, please adjust according to local needs and available budget

Beyond proving useful in response to a common car crash, securing these items will certainly prove useful in bigger but less frequent emergencies, be they natural disasters or a revolution.


3 thoughts on “How Private Security Contractors can Save Lives

  1. So is this a case where you failed to do your homework and find a PSC with these capabilities, or is this a case of the region that you operate in does not have a sufficient number of PSC’s? Or is this a case of you get what you pay for?

    I agree with your list, and any professional PSC should have those basic elements. But you as the client have a responsibility to understand what a ‘good PSC’ is, and what is required in your particular area. With a little research, that should not be a problem at all.

    • Your argument relies on the redeeming power of the free market to weed out the incompetent and promote PSC’s that have the necessary minimal competence. There may indeed be regions (Iraq comes to mind) where competition proves sufficiently fierce to ensure quality, while elsewhere (such as the former police state of Tunisia) the market is still in its infancy.

      I wish to establish a minimum of competence which every PSC should aim for. Of course, employers should use such criteria when hiring and evaluating PSC’s, creating a standard benchmark for the often intangible notion of security.

  2. What shocks me most about this (aside from the fact you almost died, whatever) is that, even in an infant market, we have security firms that don’t speak ANY of the native languages. This isn’t bargain bin security either. Matt, the employer in question is a very big deal, with plenty of money, local connections, and context, so I really doubt they were skimping or cutting corners. While there are many competent contractors, and from your blog I see that you are one of them, I’d have to assume none were available in the region at that time.

    That some assume big guns and big muscles are enough is at the heart of all that’s wrong in the security industry. Unless we’re talking a war zone, I’d feel safer with somebody who knows the land, the language, and the people than with a bunch of tough guys. Probably in a war zone, too.

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