Crisis Preparedness:  Lessons from a Kidnapping

On October 25, 2011, a young American humanitarian aid worker, Jessica Buchanan, was in Somalia teaching children how to avoid landmines when she and her colleague were kidnapped for ransom by Somali bandits. They were held in the desert at gunpoint for 93 days before they were rescued by Seal Team 6.

Buchanan will be the keynote speaker at the International Crisis Management Conference, April 5, in Boston. After watching Buchanan relate her kidnapping trauma and dramatic rescue on 60 Minutes and hearing her interview with Rob Burton on the PreparedEx podcast, I tried to think about what Buchanan’s lessons might be for crisis preparedness. She did, after all, become a very unwilling participant in an ultimate, life-threatening crisis.

Buchanan herself pointed out one huge lesson that she unfortunately learned too late. In her interviews, she related that just days before she was kidnapped, she felt that something was not safe. These were not the nerves of a security novice. Buchanan had been living in Somalia and several other dangerous countries for the last several years, and was very familiar with security measures. But this time was different. She even had a dream about kidnapping the night before it happened. “My intuition was loudly screaming at me,” she said. “You have to listen to yourself.”

So why did Buchanan not follow her own rule? Because, she said, she had become desensitized to the dangers. The day-to-day routine of security led her to become accustomed to the ever-present dangers. She became so used to the routine of security that she simply dismissed her internal discomforts that were warning her that a crisis was imminent.

Perhaps most significantly, Buchanan said that she was in a field office during the kidnapping, not her normal headquarters office. There, she was forced to depend completely on security advisors whom she did not know.

Taken together, these would be among the lessons for crisis planners from Jessica Buchanan’s harrowing, life-changing experience:

  • Stay vigilant and sensitive to red flags. These warnings can appear in various forms, from a gut feeling that something isn’t right, to small security lapses that cumulatively could make a crisis more possible. These red flags must be addressed and corrected before they have a chance to blow up.While in an unfamiliar field office, in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, Buchanan said she was unsure of that offices’ security measures. She should have requested and received a security review from security experts before her arrival at the field office. And, she should have received another briefing upon her arrival. During such reviews and briefings, she and security experts might have been able to identify security gaps that could have been corrected. Maybe there was insufficient intelligence about bandits and terrorists operating in the area, or if certain routes were considered less safe than others. If red flags such as these had been identified and then not addressed, that would have been sufficient reason not to venture out in the field.
  • A field office’s crisis preparedness and security measures must be as rigorous and as well-tested as those at the main headquarters office. That’s a lesson for many organizations with far-flung satellite facilities. A less-then-prepared field office or facility is a major vulnerability — a dangerously weak link — for the entire organization as well as to its individual members.
  • Listen closely to your intuitions and resist urges to dismiss them. “No one knows better than your gut,” says Buchanan. But what does “listening to your gut” really mean for crisis planners? It means that some thoughts have not yet been formulated clearly enough to be put into words, and they remain in the realm of instinct or intuition. Crisis planners should think long and hard about their “sixth sense.” Upon careful reflection, the reason for their discomfort might be identified and put into words so preventive measures can be taken and improvements made to the crisis plan.
  • Vigilance can become routine, so hold surprise drills. Routines can lull a person into a false sense of security, as Buchanan was to learn. Crisis planners must work hard not to let their organizations become complacent in their vigilance. Holding surprise crisis drills that test your plan and your crisis team’s performance is one very effective way to keep your organization alert.

As crisis planners, we all owe Jessica Buchanan our gratitude for sharing with us the lessons that she so painfully learned. Thank you, Jessica.

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