In harm’s way

Planning to counter high-risk threats

Keeping people safe in high-risk situations is what Phil Jones does. What can schools learn from his approach?

Instability and uncertainty

The biggest and most impactful conflict on European soil since the second world war is having an effect on us all. The immediate regional destabilization has spread to a much wider geographical demographic and realistically most of the world has been, or will be impacted in some way. Few will escape the global rise in the cost of food, oil and gas. There will be restrictions on movement for some, while others will be affected by mass migration issues. Some, close to the conflict in geographical terms have a potential to become directly involved.


Becoming involved in conflict is probably the most horrific threat to any of us, but there are others: natural disasters, the increasing likelihood of extreme weather events, the impact of a pandemic.

Being ready

Having served twenty-two years in the British military, the mantra of detailed and realistic planning to keep people safe has become second nature to me. Being effective is not just how hard or professionally you fight: the keys to staying alive are preparedness, effective logistics and timely, precise, effective decision making.

I took what I learned into my second career in the humanitarian sector, working with some of the world’s largest charitable humanitarian organisations, initially as a project manager then as a safety and security adviser during humanitarian emergencies arising from in conflict and natural disasters.

Rapid and unexpected causes of new threats

The main focus of this work has always been the safety and security of the people who are closest to the threat or dangers that may exist, be they current or impending and growing. Preparedness issues that cause organisations and individuals problems are usually due to the rapid and often unexpected onset of a threat. Conflict and disaster are usually way off most risk assessment charts. Many organisations have an internal risk register but the wider regional or country risk is too often not considered, communicated or planned for in detail.

Planning gaps

We tend to think of planning to counter risk as a process related to our workplace. Schools may have a focus on building safety, child welfare and protection, procedures for minor incident, accident protocols and fire drills just as a small example, I am sure there will be many more internal processes.

Some organisations and schools that may be in natural disaster catchments for flooding, hurricane and earthquake risks for example, may have further processes in place, but are they truly effective? Are they truly efficient and, most importantly, would these plans and protocols work if the worst situation was to become a reality?

Having listened to a presentation by a headmaster whose school was in the middle of an ongoing revolution, I was shocked by a lack of long-term preparedness, despite my sneaking admiration for the school’s on-the-hoof critical decision making, largely made by one person who luckily was at hand at the precise moment that they needed to act. If that person was not in school at that time it could have been a very messy situation.

Preparedness and awareness are critical in all levels of planning, particularly in regions and areas potentially associated with any high risk: what may be a low or medium level risk today could become a high risk very quickly. It is all contextual.

At another school in another country, I was informed by a teacher, who had undergone some localised safety and security training, that if an armed intruder entered the classroom with a gun, an overturned table will be sufficient to stop a bullet! Wrong, very wrong and dangerous advice. So, it is also important to be sure of the quality of information and training you are undertaking.

Common failures

The written documentation I have seen (school audits included) for emergency protocols have varied from the almost non-existent in terms of process to those that are really well thought out. The most common failure, however, has been (a) the failure to keep documentation updated and then (b) to practise the main emergency procedures regularly. People will also be much safer when decision making is based on a clear process, designed to have concise outcomes while allowing for some flexibility about how you get there.

Knowledge and practice

Over the years, the main lesson I have learned in a career of advising, training and leading in high-risk locations is that you have to be as well informed as you possibly can be, review your strategies often, communicate widely and then practise, practise, practise.

Knowledge gives you the power to make good decisions. Practice enables you to implement them.


After a 22-year career and active service in the UK armed forces, Phil Jones became a field security adviser to  leading humanitarian organisations and now runs his own consultancy advising those likely to be subject to high-risk threats.

His story is told in his autobiography, The Humanitarian Journeyman.



Feature Image by:   hosny_salah on Pixabay

Support Images by: johnhain & ivanacoi on Pixabay