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Published: January 28, 2014

Two British employees of the UK government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) caught up in the 2013 attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall, Nairobi, have revealed how corporate safety training from risk management experts, Pilgrims Group, helped to save their lives.

The four day assault on the shopping centre, for which Islamist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility, resulted in 72 deaths, 61 of which were civilian, with over 200 people wounded.

Prior to their postings in Kenya, the two FCO employees attended SAFE and SAFE Plus training courses run by Pilgrims. The award winning courses train participants in self-defence and equip them with survival skills for extreme situations, including those of danger. As well as theoretical learning, the courses present participants with realistic role-playing scenarios which teach them how to react instinctively to maximise their chances of survival. FCO employees posted to politically volatile countries regularly attend Pilgrims courses, which are also available to other international businesses and organisations.

The two employees, who wish to remain anonymous, described how they reacted when they first heard the explosion and gunshots which signalled they were under terrorist attack.

“I was involved in the incident at Westgate Mall in Nairobi,” one FCO employee explains. “After the initial explosion and gunfire with the resultant panic and confusion, I found myself thinking it must be an exercise as it sounded so similar to the training exercises on the Pilgrims SAFE course. This enabled me to think logically so I proceeded to find shelter and then make provision for contacting the High Commission and the local Security Manager.”

Another of the participants continues: “On the course I was involved in realistic role play scenarios, making decisions in fast-moving situations and under gunfire. This is exactly what happened at Westgate. I believe that being put in a situation of extreme stress on the course helped significantly when facing it in real life.”

Pilgrims Group Chief Operating Officer, David Freear, explains: “Our courses are designed to train participants to react calmly and effectively to the different threats they may face. We are delighted that in the case of these delegates our training prepared them for the terrifying situation they faced, enabling them to think clearly and plan the safest escape.”

“As well as meeting business continuity and corporate liability requirements when deploying staff overseas, companies have a responsibility to keep their employees and their families safe,” Freear continues. “Through skills, such as situational awareness, conflict management and trauma medicine, our training is very much focused on how to utilise this knowledge and apply the necessary skills when needed. Using this methodology, through professional accredited companies, businesses can give their teams the skill set to best handle situations, from civil unrest or natural disasters through to hostage situations.”

Head of Security Training Team at the FCO, Gill Allen, affirms: “The security situation worldwide is ever-changing and we require a fluid training response. Working closely with the Pilgrims team means we can react quickly to changing training needs, whether that’s a requirement for an in-country spouses and partners course or a self-defence course. We have worked closely with Pilgrims for over two years and its team are closely tuned to the security issues we face. For example, we worked with them to create a conflict management/self-defence course that could be offered not only to deploying officers but also to their families. It expanded and is now offered to all FCO staff, not just those deploying overseas.”

“Our work with the FCO over the last two years is showing real results, both in the development of new courses and, vitally, on the ground,” says Freear. “We believe we contribute to saving lives and we will continue to hone our courses to meet the ever changing needs of the FCO and other international clients in the months and years to come.”