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Road Safety for Aid Workers
Submitted by Brett Page on October 2, 2002 - 12:00am.
Security of the vehicle, its passengers and cargo should be uppermost in the mind of the driver. Be it the streets of London or through the massed and desperate population of a refugee camp, there are always those who covet a vehicle and its contents.
As with all activities, prior preparation will aid greatly in the conduct and success of a journey. Simple procedures based on good practice and the experience of your organisation should become naturally ingrained into the consciousness of the staff, improving their overall security and better enabling your aims to be achieved.
Serviceability Vehicles should be regularly serviced and maintained according to the manufacturer's specs or more frequently in harsher conditions of use / climate. The driver of the day must ensure that the vehicle is ready for its intended use prior to departure.
Loading Overloading of vehicles is a major cause of premature wear and failure of vehicle parts, and also of accidents. Do not exceed the declared maximum load for your trucks and 4x4s. Remember that roof racks and their cargo count towards this total weight and that any cargo on them must be aerodynamically positioned and securely tied down.
Stationary Physical Security The driver should ensure that all doors are locked and that nothing can be removed from the vehicle easily. Keep your windows partly closed to prevent people from reaching in. Consider employing one or more security guards to ride in the back with the cargo, particularly if a truck is travelling alone.
Planning the Route Particularly in regions where armed banditry is a concern, thorough planning can alleviate potential delays and help to minimize the effect of hazards. Take your map to someone who has passed along those roads often. Identify the primary route and any practical alternatives. Ensure that all drivers are aware of these secondary routes and know how to identify them on the ground. If time and resources permit, a thorough reconnaissance of all potential routes should be made.
Communications At least one vehicle should be equipped with radio communications. VHF is best for use amongst vehicles travelling in a convoy but its range is limited so HF is needed for vehicles distant from the home base. If there is a limited number of radios then they should be distributed first to the convoy leader, then the last vehicle then the centre vehicle and so on. A basic set of visual signals should be developed and practiced before departure - e.g. hand signals or flashing lights (headlights/tail lights/torch). The signals should be very basic and very limited and one of them should definitely be "DANGER".
Briefing Prior to departure, the convoy leader should fully brief everyone who is travelling with the convoy. The briefing should include the terrain and routes, expected weather and potential threats to security. Signals should be rehearsed and standard procedures taught / revised. Try to envisage everything that can go wrong or affect the conduct of the convoy: breakdowns, flooded rivers, ambush, border delays, lunch breaks etc. Come up with a brief plan on what to do in such situations. It is best if each mini-plan is as similar (if not identical) to the other mini-plans so that your drivers are confident they know what to do when situations arise.
You may think that all you need to do now is fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the scenery. Wrong!
Convoy Leadership Managing a long line of trucks, most of them without radios, through all sorts of hazards and obstacles is a multi-tasking nightmare. Much worse if you think someone might want to take a shot at you. Try to visualise your convoy as a knotted piece of string. Each knot should be a standard distance apart and that is how your convoy should look from the air. Keeping the string taut and moving is your job. Be flexible and be alert and try not to lose your cool.
Speed Never drive faster than your drivers' and your own abilities, the capabilities of the vehicles (taking into account loaded weights, condition of tyres/brakes etc) or the conditions of road surface and weather allow. When conducting a convoy, remember to set a pace that allows the convoy to stay together. Crossing a stream will slow down each vehicle so the convoy leader must maintain that same slow crawling pace until the last vehicle reports that it is clear of the obstacle.
Spacing Vehicles should never be so close to another vehicle that they cannot pull out and pass in an emergency. The safe distance between vehicles will depend on the terrain and the perceived security risk. Each vehicle should try to keep visual contact with the one ahead. Natural bottlenecks that cause vehicles to close up to one another are the perfect ambush sites - in insecure environments it is vital to impress upon your drivers that they must stop well back and wait for the vehicle in front to clear the obstacle before they approach it.
Ambush Should your vehicles come under fire then the reaction of the drivers must be instinctive. Those caught in the line of fire should try to accelerate out of danger (forget all previous notes about loads and speeds). The vehicles ahead, usually including the Convoy Leader, should identify a safe place to stop together. well away from the danger area (possibly several kilometres), and await any vehicles that make it through the ambush. Vehicles behind the ambush site should stop and move back to the last vehicle. They will now have to use one of those alternate routes you carefully planned for.
Safe Arrival Hopefully, your careful planning will have ensured that you and your cargo arrive safely at your destination. The convoy leader should be sure to inform his departure point that the convoy has arrived. Vehicles and cargo should be carefully secured before drivers and crew disperse. The planning of the next day's convoy can then begin.
Can you add anything from your experience? Do you have any hints and tips to share with other aid workers? Email email@example.com or join the discussion online at http://oldforum.aidworkers.net/messages/258/249.html
Brett Page is a former Australian Army Officer and specialised in convoy escort. He has subsequently worked for international NGOs and the UN in central Africa.
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