What a federal air marshal has to say about travel safety
When preparing to travel, we typically think of how to artfully pack our suitcase to make it past TSA regulations. We're often annoyed by the inconvenience of security measures, while trying to navigate busy and sometimes unfamiliar airports. Unfortunately, most don't see the bigger picture. In the wake of September 11, stricter screening procedures were put in place to help deter violence in airports and on aircrafts. Although this has arguably increased safety while in transit, it has left some people feeling helpless once they arrive at their final destination.
Believe it or not, most Americans rely on others for their personal safety. Whether it's the TSA, military, law enforcement, or private security, in the wake of an emergency, people commonly look to them as the sole providers of protection and safety. But we can't count on others for an instant, effective response. This is even more of a concern when traveling in an unknown area, state, or country that prevents you from carrying a firearm or a handheld weapon.
Former federal air marshal Richard A. St. Pierre suggests that personal safety and accountability is always having an entrance and exit plan whether it's at home, the airport, a restaurant, or a foreign country. There are measures you can take to maintain your personal safety in spite of restrictions imposed by your travel. But first, we'll review some statistics and events that'll hopefully help you understand why it's important to be more prepared when traveling.
In January 2013, Sarai Sierra, a 33-year-old Staten Island mother and wife, was killed while traveling in Turkey. During an interview, her killer stated that after drinking alcohol and sniffing paint thinner he stumbled upon Sierra, who was walking alone. He told authorities that he attempted to kiss her and she resisted, striking him with her cell phone. Then, he dragged her into an alcove, where she attempted to fight him off for approximately 30 minutes. Some would conclude that traveling alone in Istanbul, Turkey, simply isn't safe. But what about the incidents that happen in our backyard? On Oct. 1, 2017, at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival held in Las Vegas, Nevada, a gunman opened fire on concertgoers from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, killing 58 and injuring more than 400. Our goal isn't to talk about what the victims might've done, but to acknowledge that evil exists and prepare ourselves to combat it as best we can.
Studies show that, as of 2013, the average response time for law enforcement nationwide is 11 to 18 minutes. Conversely, a commonly cited statistic is that the average gunfight lasts three seconds, while a shooting incident lasts approximately 12.5 minutes. These statistics suggest that, on average, we may not be able to rely on others for help when we most need it, and we're ultimately responsible for our own safety. With these numbers at our disposal it may be hard to understand why daily habits of preparedness aren't more common compared to other "universal" safety rituals, like installing smoke detectors in our homes in case of a fire, wearing seatbelts while driving in case of an accident, and locking our doors to deter theft. Still, the average American neglects daily practices focusing on personal protection.
Here are some recommended steps that you can take to increase your awareness and safety before, during, and after traveling.
The first step in protecting ourselves, or loved ones at home or on the road is having a plan. Whether it includes carrying a firearm or an edged weapon, being proficient in hand-to-hand combat, or simply being able to remain calm, think, react, and communicate appropriately. It's important to identify a survival resource and train it consistently, helping to develop an ingrained mental pathway for our safety habits.
If you're traveling domestically, carrying a firearm once you arrive at your destination may be an option, but first you must research the firearms and carry laws of that locality. Does it have reciprocity with your home state? If not, what are the local licensing laws? If flying with a firearm or handheld weapon, you should check with both TSA and the airline to ensure you follow proper procedures to do so. For international travel, you don't have this option.
Prior to travel, research your destination. If flying into an airport or arriving in a train station, look into the various modes of transportation within the area and how to access them. For example, is public transportation a practical option and known to be safe? To get an idea about crime trends throughout the transiting area, check out the free crime reporting website Spotcrime.com. It's light on details, but it'll give you an idea of what areas have high instances of crime.
If you're using taxi or car services, identify reputable companies and pick-up locations ahead of time and know whether or not they're regulated in that area. In the U.S., taxi services are regulated and have set prices in each state; they generally offer two to three different price brackets for daytime, nighttime, and peak hours. Furthermore, most taxis are outfitted with security cameras and GPS locators. If traveling internationally, not all cabs are regulated. If using a cab, you're better off calling for one rather than hailing one. When the cab arrives, look for numbers and labeling on the outside. On the inside, look for a meter, radio, and badge. Know where you're going and be aware of local currency conversions.
Other popular transportation options are ride-sharing services, such as Uber, UberX, or Lyft. Most ride-share services have come under regulation — the respective state and territory governments have set varying requirements on drivers before they're eligible for work. Uber drivers are generally required to hold a state-based driver authority (much like a taxi driver), which usually involves a criminal history and medical check as well as providing proof of insurance. Aside from regulations most ride-share services have a number of different parameters in place to ensure passengers safety to include:
- No Anonymity: Passengers are given a driver's name, photo, vehicle information, and contact number. The trip is also kept on record.
- GPS Tracking: Once your driver accepts you request, your trip is tracked via GPS on your phone and the driver's phone. You also have the ability to share your ride with your friends or family so they can keep track of your ride.
- Rating System: Drivers are anonymously reviewed by passengers on a scale of 1 to 5. Drivers may have their accounts deactivated if they consistently receive low ratings.
Make sure to note any neighborhoods or areas plagued with high crime and avoid them if possible. Crimereports.com is a great way to search crime data by region, address, zip code, or law enforcement agency.
Having a plan and knowing where you're going will reduce any unnecessary loitering that could reveal to predators that you're unfamiliar with the area.
If staying in a hotel, try to find a known, reputable brand. Most hotel chains have a rewards program and website to book reservations through, which often include a star rating system. When making your reservation, request a room off of the ground floor. Higher floors help prevent someone from walking in off the street and easily gaining access to your room. Once your reservation is made, record the hotel's address and contact information, and store it somewhere that you can easily access once you arrive. Fumbling through your personal belongings creates distractions and opportunities for human predators.
If you've booked your travel accommodations through an online hospitality service that rents private residences like Airbnb or VRBO, knowing the area becomes even more important. Is the area of the rental safe? Is it accessible to public transportation? Will it be owner-occupied while you're renting? Is there parking available at or near the rental, if renting a car or driving to your destination? Always know whom you're renting from by reading previous renter reviews and renting from a verified source.
Don't advertise solo travel or that you're a tourist. Always move with confidence even if you feel unsure. Don't be flashy with clothing or accessories. If traveling internationally, be sure to know local customs and dress accordingly. Be aware of cultural etiquette for the areas you'll be visiting, whether in or out of the United States. Remember that anything you say or do in public can be overheard or observed. Like the World War II saying "loose lips sink ships," gabbing openly about your plans, where you're staying, or how excited you are to finally get out on your own could inadvertently put you at risk if you happen to be amongst the wrong crowd. Do your best to favor well-lit areas with lots of public traffic. If you plan to drink alcoholic beverages, know your limits, don't leave drinks unattended, and don't accept drinks from strangers. The importance of selecting a reputable car services applies doubly when you're tipsy. We know of several people who've been mugged or worse because they had one too many and assumed that once they got in a cab everything would be fine.
The loose lips rule applies to hotel staff equally as anyone else. Have just one keycard made for your room, to help prevent misplacing or losing track of keys. When in your room, make sure to lock the door and utilize any additional security locks. Note that not all hotel doors have supplemental security features, so consider travelling with a rubber or tactical doorstop with which you can chock the door from the inside to make it harder for someone to force access. If there's a safe in the room, always keep identification papers and high-dollar items locked up. If an in-room safe isn't available, the front desk may have a safe deposit box. When leaving your room, place the do not disturb card on the outside of the door and leave the radio or TV on. This will make your room appear occupied, especially when traveling alone.
Prior to checking out of the hotel, double-check the safe for personal items. Do a full sweep of your hotel room to ensure you don't leave any personal affects behind. Make sure not to leave anything in the trash that could be used to identify you, such as old boarding tickets, receipts, mail, or agendas. Although most hotels have stopped attaching personal information to room keys, turn in or take hotel keys with you.
Again, if you're staying at a private residence that you booked through an online hospitality service, preparedness is paramount to your safety. Communicate through the site you book through, set expectations with your host for your visit ahead of time, and don't leave personal items behind.
Try to remain especially alert at the airport or in any major transportation hub. Hundreds of thousands of people transit through these various networks on a daily basis from all over the world, making it a target-rich environment. As always, maintain accountability for your personal items and never leave them unattended. If you forget this last part, the incessant loudspeaker announcements in most major airports will no doubt remind you.
Even after travelling, safety is paramount. Once home, check your luggage to make sure you didn't leave anything behind. Also, run periodic checks of your bank accounts and credit card statements to make sure none of your accounts were compromised. It's also a good practice to occasionally check your credit statement for fraudulent activity.
Maintain awareness in all senses of the word. Just because you safely made it back to the comforts of your own home doesn't mean that risks are no longer present. We often become complacent in our daily routines, and it's just as important for us to maintain vigilance while conducting daily activities. Whether you're traveling to and from work, to another state, across the country, or internationally, personal accountability and preparedness are the two most important factors to ensure that you and your loved ones don't become victims.Do:
- Online research of crime reports in the area you intend to stay.
- Lock sensitive items up in a hotel safe and copies of identification on your person.
- Call for a taxi from an accredited company or ride-sharing service rather than hailing one.
- Periodically check your bank and credit card statements to watch for any fraudulent activity.
- Leave drinks unattended or accept any from strangers.
- Travel alone, especially in unfamiliar areas.
- Post information on social media regarding your whereabouts and status abroad until after you return home.
- Leave receipts, boarding passes, and other information that can be used to identify you behind in hotel rooms.
Hana L. Bilodeau has over 15 years of law enforcement experience, serving both locally and federally. Most recently, she spent time with the Federal Air Marshal Service covering multiple domestic and international missions. Hana has a wealth of knowledge in a number of different defensive modalities to include her present role as a full-time firearms instructor for SIG SAUER Academy. Hana is also a per diem deputy with the Strafford County Sheriff's Office, allowing her to stay current with the law enforcement culture.
This article originally appeared on Recoilweb. Follow @RecoilMag on Twitter.