Amid fake gunfire, hostage and checkpoint scenarios, first aid training and defense techniques, freelance journalists from all over the world received a one-of-a-kind safety training to prepare them for any situation they might face out in the field.
The Miami-Dade County training July 24 to 26 was funded by the Steven Sotloff Memorial 2Lives Foundation, whose mission is to provide scholarships to men and women seeking careers in journalism. Art Sotloff started the foundation after his son, Miami-based journalist Steven Sotloff, was publicly beheaded by ISIS in 2014.
“It’s important to me because if I can make a difference in one journalist’s life, it’s all worth it,” Art Sotloff said. “These kids are going out on their own without a lot of preparation because they’re freelance journalists and this is giving them a little security, techniques and knowledge. If Steven had the chance to take this course, he might be standing next to me right now.”
Sotloff wants to give those who participated in the Hazardous Environment First Aid Training (HEFT) course the tools and knowledge to survive in areas of conflict, and to allow his son’s legacy to be carried on by future generations of journalists.
Participating journalists came from as far away as Brazil, Colombia, Syria and Afghanistan. This three-day course took place at both the University of Miami, and Miami Airsoft, a warehouse facility in Hialeah Gardens.
Every morning, certified Hostile Environment Training and Support instructors would teach the journalists techniques and skills to use in the field. In the afternoons, they used the skills learned to handle scenarios with paid actors.
During one exercise at Miami Airsoft, the journalists split into teams and encountered an actor on the ground screaming in pain with a specific type of wound.
Using first-aid knowledge they received by the Global Journalist Security (GJS) instructors, the journalists observed their surroundings for danger, assessed the wound and controlled the bleeding, all while composing themselves in the face of an actor screaming in pain.
The instructors felt this was necessary to simulate exactly what journalists might face in the field covering stories.
“We hope the first thing they experience is emergency first aid because in some of these areas, they not only have to think about colleagues and those around, but themselves as well,” said Shane Bell a former elite commando of the Australian army and trainer/advisor with GJS. “These trainings are very intense, we try to get you to the point of irony when we do scenarios, so as close as we can to what you may be facing out in the field.”
In another exercise, they experienced a real world hostage and terrorist situation. After walking single file into the semi-dark warehouse, the journalists were surrounded on all sides by eight or nine actors in full military attire who forcefully told them to get on the ground, while pointing fake, but real-looking assault rifles at their heads. They were then tied up, berated with obscenities, had bags placed over their heads and were escorted to interrogation areas.
The journalists were forced to comply. Their training taught them to be truthful, but not give anything away that could be a reason for them to be targeted further. Some were even forced to bark like a dog, or have a Taser drawn and used about a foot away from their heads so they wouldn’t actually be shocked.
“The scenarios inside the simulation area were very real. When you first start them you know in the back of your mind they’re not real, but as your emotions and adrenaline get bigger, sometimes you lose yourself,” said Tej Joshi, a freelance journalist and student at the University of Miami. “They were able to make you feel like you’re really in that situation.”
The importance of this training is the experience they now have moving forward.
“The value of this course is that if and when I face a hostile or unexpected dangerous situation, I’ve been through these scenarios before, I’ve thought through them,” said Taylor Barnes, a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. “I’ve gotten feedback from some of the best people who know how to deal with this and I already know I will feel more confident when I face them.”
Some of the other topics covered: how to handle transportation/logistics, how to deal with riot scenarios, how to make it through security checkpoints and how to communicate without being tracked by certain governments.
“My main thing I want to do is to make sure everyone remembers who my son was and this is a good way to do it,” Sotloff said. “I think the training that everyone received here will make them think clearly and save their lives.”