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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 May, 2004, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
Hostile environments

By Caroline Neil
BBC High Risk team

"You want to film in how many war zones?" I exclaimed. He must be joking.

Will Daws, producer for This World, repeated the number: "Well it's only 16, but we have to film in 19, to make sure that the footage isn't hijacked on the way back"

Will has a habit of making the most dangerous assignment sound like walking your dog in the park... and then afterwards buying an ice cream to eat by the duck pond.

After some thought, and my usual inevitable thought process of "nothing is impossible in my book", my brain started whirring and making lists of advice for Will.

Ok let's be logical. The trickiest bit was getting in and out. The bit in the middle would just sort of happen. My mental lists got longer.

The serious bit came next. The in-depth planning for the High Risk Team started with the countries. Were they war zones? Former war zones? Areas of civil unrest? Environmentally unfriendly and hostile? Or just plain "bad-assed hell holes" ?

A good combination of all of the above meant a different approach for each country.

It was no mean feat trying to get all the video producers through the doors of the Occupational Health department!

Who was going and where, had they received any hostile environment training (courses run by ex-military on how to behave and react in difficult regions), did they need refresher training?

What advice did they require, had they been to the areas before, so could they go on their own, or did they need a security person or a good local fixer?

It was endless.

Rounding up the troops

Next it was over to the Travel Clinic at the BBC's White City - for the medical advice they may have to seek.

Every one saw either a BBC doctor or nurse. They needed vaccinations, travel health advice, medication kits and sterile needle packs.

It was no mean feat trying to track this bunch down long enough to get them through the doors of the Occupational Health department! They came from far and wide.

What were the chances of something going wrong?

We ordered equipment from the safety stores in advance. We guessed what they would need for some of the countries: body armour, ballistic helmets, global positioning systems (GPS) to tell us where they were, satellite phones to cover all the areas and medical packs for severe trauma.

And then one of the final things to consider was what to do if it all went wrong?

What were the chances of something going wrong?

Well my heart sank.The odds were quite high, if I were honest with myself.

Safety nets

We drew on all our experience of working in hostile environments and put together workable contingency plans with the teams.

However, we would never impose a plan on anyone. They all had to tell us what they wanted us to do if they were missing, shot, injured or kidnapped.

We would make sure that the right people tried to track them down and that we had workable procedures in place.

The last thing we wanted was to get it wrong and endanger them more, or even ruin their contacts on the ground for next time.

The plan for a fatality, which I dreaded having to implement, thankfully remained tucked away in my file in London.

If people know the limitations of the 'ivory tower' in London, it's safer than assuming some SAS-style plan will save them

The master folder for contingencies for each country got bigger, as everyone going into the field, and in London, kept adding information each day as the deployment got closer.

Then the real question. How could we realistically get someone out if they had a problem?

In the final briefings we told them the truth. Lies are no good to anyone on the ground.

If people know the limitations of the "ivory tower" in London, it's safer than assuming some SAS-style plan will save them.

Some places we could help and others it was help themselves. The programme was almost as safe as it was ever going to be.

The production team were trained how to plot where everyone was and how to log all the positions. We set up a "coordination room". It was an operations room really, but we thought that sounded too military.

The wall chart showed when people were meant to call in and when they had last called in.

As we waited each day for news from each team, it became the most looked at white board in White City.

The assignment was a success and our people in the field remained safe and sound.

Well Will - you did it! In fact, we all did it!

WATCH THE PROGRAMME: Thursday 27 May, BBC TWO, 21:00 BST

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