Why Sustainment Training Is Critical to Executive Protection Program Success

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If “training is the cornerstone of readiness”, as the US Army writes in Train to Win in a Complex World, sustainment training is what maintains and improves that readiness over time.

This maxim is equally true in private sector executive protection. Unfortunately, however, the importance of sustainment training in executive protection programs is often neglected. In this blog, we take a closer look at which EP skills need to be maintained through sustainment training – and why sustainment training is too often ignored or underprioritized in executive protection programs.

Some skills are perishable: Use them or lose them

Most of us learned how to ride a bike as children. Acquiring this more or less pure motor skill doesn’t come easy and requires lots of trial and error between pedal pushing, falling down, and getting up again. The effort is worth it, however: Once we learn how to keep our balance on a bike, we don’t forget – even if years go by between rides.

The brain stores memories – and by extension some skills – in different ways. Bicycle riding, like climbing stairs or the basics of keeping a car on the road, rely on “procedural memory”: a kind of long-term memory for motor skills that we perform without being conscious of them. These skills just don’t fade away that easily.

Other skills, ones that require different kinds of memory and cognitive processing, are different. If you don’t use them, you lose them.

Emergency medicine practitioners, for example, must be proficient in a wide range of procedures to perform competently. Some are monotonous, others are life-saving.  Some are used frequently, others rarely if ever. They are all necessary. High-frequency/low-criticality skills like checking vitals do not perish because they are used all the time. Low-frequency/high-criticality skills like CPR, on the other hand, do fade away if they are not used.

Who would you want to perform CPR on your loved one – someone who took a course two years ago but hasn’t used or retrained the procedure since? Or someone who does frequent simulation-based training? Research indicates your loved one should prefer the latter.

Sustainment training keeps perishable executive protection skills fresh

Executive protection agents need to master a variety of skills, and training in them is a prerequisite for most jobs. Of course, just how much training is required, in what, and at which level, will depend on the program and the position. Everything else being equal, however, it’s safe to assume that most agents need at least basic training – and sustainment training – in four key skill areas: medical, driving, defensive tactics, and firearms. Let’s take a look at each of these.

  • Medical skills for executive protection

Of all the risks that can impact the principal’s wellbeing, medical issues are the most probable to arise. Proficiency in emergency medical procedures, therefore, is arguably the most important skill in the EP toolbox.

Whether EP agents should have 10-day basic EMS training or 32-day EMT Wilderness certifications is beyond the scope of this blog. We won’t get into any discussion of which specific proficiencies are necessary, or at what level – that all depends on the program and its context. In some situations, basic first aid training might be sufficient; other programs might require more advanced skills. In some cases, it could make better sense to add a licensed local physician to the team.

But no matter what the starting point is, sustainment training is necessary to keep medical skills sharp and usable. Best practice would require agents to demonstrate proficiency in their required medical skills at least once a year.

  • Tactical driving skills for executive protection

Car accidents are another high-probability, high-impact risk. While less likely than dying from heart disease (odds: 1 in 6), dying from a motor vehicle crash (odds: 1 in 103) is still at the top of the National Safety Council’s list of lifetime odds, and something that EP practitioners must take extremely seriously.

As was the case for medical skills, the skills necessary for EP driving depend on the protective program and the context. Not all EP agents are drivers. Not all executive drivers are EP agents. Some programs require drivers with solid defensive tactics and chauffeur skills only. Some require full-blown evasive and anti-terrorist skills. To make things even more complex, when traveling abroad, drivers and vehicles are almost invariably sourced locally.

No matter what the context, given the relative criticality and likelihood of traffic accidents, driver training matters. Unfortunately, a lot of people have a “one-and-done” attitude regarding driver training. In many programs, you’re lucky to get recertified every three to five years. In the best of all possible worlds, sustainment training should be mandatory once a year for driving staff. This is easier for EP managers to control when dealing with their own employees, but just as important when vetting third-party vendors.

  • Firearms training for executive protection

Here’s another skill set that doesn’t fit into any one-size-fits-all training requirements. Although many EP programs do use armed agents, most do not. Agents that can carry in the U.S. cannot do so when traveling abroad or even throughout the U.S.; armed EP agents are not allowed in many countries. So, firearms training will not be important at all in many circumstances.

Where EP agents are armed, however, everyone would agree that they must be trained properly, and that sustainment training is important. And that’s about where the agreement ends.

Not even police departments within the U.S. have consistent sustainment training standards for the use of firearms. Some require annual training, some semi-annual. Some with a variety of weapons, some with just one. Some experts on firearms training for law enforcement officers recommend relevant, realistic, and regular training, i.e., four times annually. Others would claim that this is not enough.

As for firearms training and EP, we would recommend mandatory quarterly training as a minimum. We would also expect agents who are serious about their trade to train on their own once a month to maintain proficiency. If training is done in-house, then it’s a good idea to bring in an outside instructor, someone whose good reputation has been carefully vetted, to prevent the team from developing inbred bad habits. There must also be a pass/fail test and agreed procedures for dealing with those that fail their test.

If and when the day comes that use of firearms is necessary, no training is ever enough. One of the first questions the lawyers will ask will be about training. And they will keep asking.

  • Defensive tactics for executive protection

We need to focus on what matters in defensive tactics for EP professionals. Realistically, an eight-hour course in Brazilian jiu-jitsu is not going to make you an expert in anything. And even if you’ve been doing martial arts for a long time, you need to learn what’s critical to know within the context of executive protection.

Defensive tactics for executive protection must be simple and easy to learn and maintain.

We need to be proficient in some basic stuff that creates time and distance between the principal and trouble – and be gone. Speed, selective aggression, surprise, and techniques that don’t steal the show on camera are important. Black belts and advanced skills are nice, but not necessary.

Basic defensive tactics are some of the more perishable executive protection skills and really should be trained a lot more than they are – ideally an hour a week or at least a monthly team session.

Why don’t more clients and executive companies build sustainment training into programs? Awareness, time, and money.

Clients, providers, and agents all appreciate the criticality of sustainment training once they become aware of its importance and think through the consequences of having it or not having it. Unfortunately, not everyone is aware of its significance. If there are no incidents that demonstrate the lack of sustainment training – if nothing happens to the principal – then it is easy to remain blissfully unaware of team complacency and the poor training standards that contribute to it.

Even if clients and providers do agree on the importance of sustainment training, budget often gets in the way. Who should pay for it, clients, providers, or individual agents? It is far easier to build the costs of sustainment training into SOWs from the beginning than to tack them on to ongoing programs later. And it is important to include all the costs – from direct training costs to travel costs – and the cost of replacing team members who are away on training.

Time is perhaps the scarcest resource of all when it comes to sustainment training. EP managers need to build some redundancy into staffing levels to accommodate time for agent training. Agents need to add time for training to the juggling act of work-life balance. Other, seemingly more important tasks can always get higher priority.

The costs of not prioritizing sustainment training, however, can far outweigh the limited expense of building them into comprehensive executive protection programs. Beyond legal liability, the costs of program failure and client dissatisfaction must also be weighed.

Doing the best with what you’ve got

It’s true that every executive protection program must operate within a budget – and that there are only 24 hours in a day.

In other words, we always have to provide the best protection we can – including the best sustainment training – with the resources we have available. This is on all of us.

With unlimited resources, all kinds of things are possible. But there will never be enough money or time to achieve absolute perfection. Clients, providers, and agents all need to take responsibility for demanding and doing the best with what we’ve got. Just as individual executive protection agents need a good dose of resourcefulness to be successful, we believe executive protection providers must also find creative ways to ensure the best possible sustainment training programs with available resources.