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Exclusive Interview with Brian Mitchell of Crisis Cast

The Mackenzie Institute interviews Brian Mitchell, Lead Producer of Crisis Cast, on using drama and simulation to inform the public on how to react to terrorist attacks and emerging security threats. 

Can you tell us a little bit about what Crisis Cast does? What types of security situations are you most commonly asked to simulate?

www.crisiscast.com was established to bring the best of film and theatre, the best of writing, directing and performing to dramatize events for emerging security needs in the UK, Middle East and worldwide.

Trained by behavioral psychologists, our specialist role-play actors – many with SC clearance – are rigorously rehearsed in criminal and victim behavior. This level of expertise and accuracy is used to help police, government agencies, the military and the emergency services, but also hospitals, schools, local authorities, private security firms, shopping centers, airports, big business, criminal justice departments, media and the military to simulate highly realistic incident environments for life saving procedures and to trial and train the skills needed by those who find themselves in those situations.

We use state of the art British film industry techniques, props and special effects to help trainers deliver essential, hands-on, high octane crisis response and disaster management training. We also work with trainee doctors, psychologists and care professionals to provide the degree of realism that makes training both effective and memorable when it is most needed.

Has your work influenced policy development? In what ways can your work influence future policy?

By combining our confronting scenario based training with subject matter expertise from Hanover Associates UK, we can provide a level of realism and accuracy for interactive, scenario based training that ensures it is not only impactful but memorable when needed most. The combination also means we can test and train simultaneously. For example, we recently carried out a series of penetration tests on a landmark building in London and in the process of drilling and training the security teams to spot unusual behavior on CCTV, Hanover Associates were able to provide a report on weakness in the building’s security – a report that had a considerable effect on the security policy of that building, and consequently, on the safety of hundreds of thousands of tourists who use the building every year. We have developed a training method that not only provides highly accurate learning in up-to-date and efficient incident management procedures, but also gives delegates the opportunity to acquire the skills and insights vital for optimizing their ability to put those procedures into practice should they ever need to. There is a growing realization in the sector that having an incident management policy sitting in a drawer or a sub-folder somewhere is not enough—you need to be fit and capable of operating it.

Have new threats to global security changed or evolved the services that you provide?

Yes. There is much greater awareness of public safety in relation to the extremist threat and, as a consequence, a much greater need for effective and appropriate preparation to meet that threat. We are able to simulate with scientific accuracy both criminal and victim behavior. We ‘cast’ our actors in response to intelligence about the specific exercise so that the training we provide reflects the current threat. For example, we have recently deployed actors to represent homegrown extremists, radicalized here in the UK. We work with laser like precision on the behaviors because appearances count for very little in identifying a home grown threat. We employ and train actors from every ethnic origin to represent any typical street in London, Bristol or Edinburgh, or any worker in any department in any part of the country we are training in. The growing significance of the role of the individual activist in generating security threats has meant that the early identification of suspicious behaviors has become a central part of security provision, an area where naturally the use of highly accurate role-players in training is increasingly necessary.

How much of a concern is terrorism in comparison to other threats to public safety?

Clearly, it is the major worry in urban environments currently. But we do work with environmental health, food agencies, public and private transport, aviation and maritime entities. The main reason we are hired by these organizations is to provide a hi-fidelity, live interaction with learners that cannot be replicated as authentically or with as much impact by any other means. For example, we offer border control agencies a suite of training modules that prepare their new joiners to carry out thorough body searches on individuals who on the basis of age, gender, faith, disability or mental health present a particular challenge to the agent – not in terms of achieving a successful search but in terms of carrying out his/her duties in as humane and empathetic a way as possible. We have always understood that the agent has an operational duty to perform but we didn’t expect our work helping the agent understand the challenging nature presented by some suspects to improve the overall performance of body searches across the board!

In your experience, what type of terrorist attacks are the general public most susceptible to?

It depends on the environment. In a school (and we are increasingly being called on to deliver training in schools, universities and colleges all over the world) the active shooter or active knifeman is very real threat. ISIS recently targeted US teachers working in Western schools in the Middle East because they believed that if they created fear in the expatriate community, not only would the supply of willing teachers dry up but the local parents would not send their kids to schools with such high risk, and the schools would cease being able to offer Westernized education as a result of simple economics. An American teacher was stabbed in a shopping mall in such an incident.

The extension of targets identified by terrorist organizations as representing Western culture has seen the escalation of the threat to shopping malls – the Westfield malls in the UK have been particular targets, as have commercial areas such as London’s Oxford Street. That increased perception of risk translates well into media stories which recycle the fear, and the public becomes increasingly cautious and nervous in public places.

Airports and airplanes have a particular horror attached to them, as do urban transport systems such as the Paris Metro or the London underground. Threats directed at transport conjure a very emotive, fearful way to end one’s life – trapped underground, falling through the air, or sinking.  But to answer the question, we are currently preparing modules that have at their center the dangerous combination of weaponized vehicles moving at speed in crowded places. Similar attacks have proved lethal – we regard them as a highly likely and potentially successful way for terrorists to maim, injure and kill large numbers of innocent people. Our work not only provides a safe, highly realistic way for emergency services to prepare for this sort of attack but also tests the emergency response for weaknesses or gaps in the process.

Apart from practicing vigilance, what steps can the general public take to mitigate the risk of violent terrorist attacks?

Terrorism is a crime, and many of the security precautions typically used to deter criminals are also effective against terrorists. It is important to be vigilant in public areas and look out for anything suspicious. Heightened awareness of unattended bags in public places, of people checking out areas or buildings, people trying to access secure areas, people at events wearing too much clothing or unexpected / mislabeled parcels. If you see anything, report it to the police immediately – many terrorist attacks are foiled by the astuteness of ordinary people. We would advise keeping your mobile phone charged and with you, with emergency numbers programmed in. You can remain anonymous if you don’t want to reveal your name and personal details.

Terrorists live in normal streets and they need to plan and prepare for attacks. They behave rationally. They buy and store materials, fund their activities, move around, prepare equipment and weapons and possibly undergo training. They may have people helping them – and these people might come and go at strange times of the day and night. They may make unusual financial transactions or use false documents to hide their real identities. They may begin behaving differently to how you’ve known them to behave in the past. Members of the public are the most likely people to be able to notice changes in behavior or even just small oddities in activity but this intelligence, if reported in time, may well prevent a planned terrorist attack.

If you are aware of something suspicious, trust your instincts and report it to the police. What might seem insignificant on its own could actually provide a vital link in a wider investigation.

How do you advise people to act when threatened by a violent individual or group?

We would always advise people to leave the situation and call the police as soon as is possible. If it is not possible to leave, then our advice is quickly to determine the most reasonable way to protect yourself. You need to assess the situation. For example, if the individual is angry or aggressive we advise to stay calm, listen attentively, maintain eye contact, while being courteous, patient, and respectful. If shouting, swearing, or threatening continues, then signal to another member of the public that you need help so they can call the police. If the individual is armed then the advice is to Run, Hide, Fight.

Run – Have at least 2 evacuation routes and an evacuation plan in mind, leave your belongings behind and keep your hands visible

Hide – Hide in an area out of the violent person’s view, block entry to your hiding place and lock the doors, turn off the lights, turn off your mobile phone’s ringer and vibration settings

Fight – As a last resort, and only when your life is in imminent danger. Attempt to incapacitate the violent person, act with physical aggression and throw items at the violent person. Call the police when it is safe to do so.

Do a threat’s circumstances dictate people’s responses to terrorist threats or are there responses that have broad applicability?

People’s reactions to stress situations are highly personal and individual. Therefore, individual factors are very important in determining how a person will respond to a threat. People may also react differently in a group situation than if they are alone. Although there are fundamental rules of incident management which can be learnt and be highly effective in emergency response situations, you will have no idea how you will respond until you face that situation – we have seen in our exercises time and again that the calmest, most logical of executives can become incapacitated and ineffective when faced with the immediacy of an emergency scenario, and conversely, that someone in the organization that nobody had much knowledge of, can emerge as clear-headed, efficient and vitally useful in the same set of circumstances. What is undeniable is that once you’ve been through an emergency incident your insights into your own and others’ behavior will be radically altered and you will be much better able to handle similar pressures when the barrier of shock behaviors and inexperience has been removed. It is in this area that we have found bringing an exercise as close to reality as possible within a safe learning environment becomes so invaluable.

We would always advise that if someone feels that they are at particular risk, it may be useful to have a plan of action to follow in the event of an incident. This could include identifying places like police stations, hospitals and official buildings along your route where you could seek refuge in an emergency. It is also a good idea to inform someone about where you are going and when you intend to return.

Are there specific groups in the public who public safety training is most advantageous for?

Terrorists typically attack public places with large crowds because they want to cause the most damage and get the most attention for their cause. Anyone likely to be a focal point in the event of an attack, such as security guards, teachers, retail assistants in shopping centres, staff at military and civilian government facilities or high profile landmarks, and international airport staff would therefore benefit from appropriate training both in vigilance and the behaviors to watch out for, and to optimize their own ability to put incident response plans and procedures into action. It has to be said that the latter can also be highly useful in situations where there is a less immediate threat – an understanding of your own stress behaviors and how you will tend to respond in pressured situations can be a useful skill to have!

In the UK there are specific training packages designed as part of the CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy whose aim is “to reduce the risk to the UK and its interests overseas from terrorism, so that people can go about their lives freely and with confidence.” CONTEST is split into four work streams that are known within the counter-terrorism community as the ‘four P’s’: Prevent, Pursue, Protect, and Prepare.

What is the one thing you want everyone who uses your services to take away from the simulation?

A confidence in their ability to protect themselves and others through their knowledge of effective incident management strategies, and the skills and insights to enable them to use those strategies most effectively.

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