The content and quality of HEAT courses vary greatly. There are companies that offer trainings that are more similar to that of a bootcamp. There are organizations who put together intense HEATs trying to prep the participants for any circumstance they might find themselves in. And under Covid-19, came the creation of online HEATs.
For the humanitarian community, the key to a good HEAT is that it takes a humanitarian perspective. For humanitarian workers, bootcamp style HEATs are not realistic as we do not respond to hostile environments the same as other actors in the same hostile environment. For example, like the military, private security companies, or commercial parties like the oil industry. Nor do we require the same sort of physical training to perform our jobs. For instance, certain HEATs have self defense training or extensive firearms awareness. Both are examples that do not increase the personal safety of humanitarian worker and in fact provide a false sense of security. In the vast majority of the humanitarian sector, it is irrelevant to know how the various types of small arms and light weapons sound, how many rounds they hold, or how to use them. What needs to be known is that these weapons do kill when you are on the wrong end of them, and how to recognize when they are not handled safely by the carrier. And, when you hear or see an explosion or a bang, you need to know how to get to safety. Similarly for self defense. Using violence, even in self defense, goes against the nature of most humanitarian workers. Hence, this is why they signed up for joining this sector in the first place! By focusing on these topics, you lose the participant’s attention, or worse, you may even create an aversion, resulting in the participant’s (subconscious) unwillingness to learn the more relevant skills that are important for them to stay safe. This is what is meant by a bootcamp style HEAT. Compliance and avoidance do much more for the personal safety of aid workers, and what a good HEAT should focus on.
What about the other extreme of having an online HEAT that takes away all physical simulations? That isn’t realistic either. Prepping for a mission by reading up on the culture, politics, and security situation is necessary, as well as cultural sensitivity awareness. And, yes, this stuff can be done online. But preparation also includes physical skills that need to be practiced and rehearsed. This is not as intimidating as it sounds. The physical skills we work on HEATs are our natural responses to stressful and dangerous situations. If you have never experienced a hostile environment, you might not know what these natural responses are and that is a risk. Or, you might have experienced a hostile environment and reacted in a way you did not expect. The point of a HEAT is to learn the best way to respond to protect yourself. A good HEAT is developed around the knowledge that every person is unique and responds in their own unique way. HEAT is meant to shape the response mechanisms you already have. HEAT is not meant to be some intimidating security course. It is all about your safety and the simple steps you can take to keep yourself safe despite working under extreme conditions. HEAT is your chance to practice these skills in a safe learning environment so they can become your immediate response. This is why it is important you choose a quality HEAT that will do this for you.
We cannot begin to tell you how many times we have seen participants show up on a HEAT, nervous about the course, worried that this HEAT is a sleep depriving course where it is all about keeping you constantly under stress. They may also be completely disinterested because they view security as something almost militaristic and rather than about personal safety (when it is in fact all about personal safety). However, by the end of the course, these same people came back up to us and told us that they had had a great experience. They felt they learned some really useful skills, and were surprised at how interesting they found the material. They had been challenged throughout the course but never to the point where they felt they could not complete the course. They also highlighted how it was great to have trainers who had so much experience in the humanitarian sector, understood their drive and whom they felt they could talk to openly about their concerns or discuss their experiences in more detail.
Whatever security training you choose, choose wisely. Do not go for the title of HEAT only. There are (too) many different forms of HEAT. Choose one specifically designed for the humanitarian sector with trainers that have a proven track record in being on mission for INGOs and preferably have held other positions in addition to safety and security advisor. Choosing a HEAT specifically designed for the humanitarian sector means you will end up on a course where you immediately see relevance and benefit. A course built around humanitarian principles, International Humanitarian Law, and with a realistic view of the strengths and weaknesses of working in this sector, are signs that this training provider understands the what it means to work in a hostile environment as an humanitarian worker.