The other day in Kent, two gunmen opened fire on a black Nissan SUV as it slowed at a railroad crossing. The driver died instantly. The SUV kept rolling...

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The other day in Kent, two gunmen opened fire on a black Nissan SUV as it slowed at a railroad crossing. The driver died instantly. The SUV kept rolling.

From the passenger seat, Joanna Alexander, CEO of Seattle’s Zombie Studios, leaned over and grabbed the dead man’s leg.

She used it to push the gas pedal. Speeding down a crowded street, she swerved to miss a cluster of children and finally parked on a side street, out of harm’s way.

“Good,” the dead man said, awaking from the parking-lot simulation. “That was excellent.”

Alexander has lived in Italy, Holland, England and Ireland and traveled in many developing countries. But the software executive only recently got serious about taking precautions when venturing abroad, by signing up for a special training course in Kent.

10 tips for traveling abroad

1. Research the destination; know medical, natural, criminal and terrorist threats.

2. Get documents in order: will, medical power of attorney, itinerary, emergency contact info.

3. Consider buying kidnap and ransom insurance.

4. Be inconspicuous; try to blend in or look unimportant.

5. Be aware of people and surroundings; it changes your body language and makes you look less vulnerable to criminals.

6. Travel with a companion, escort or co-worker, if possible.

7. Make copies of passports and other valuable documents to carry with you.

8. Keep to moderately populated areas; crowds deter violent criminals.

9. Avoid mass transit and highly populated areas; they attract terrorists.

10. Ask travel-medicine specialists for preventive measures in exotic destinations.

11. Get training: basic first aid, situational awareness and self-defense.

Five common crisis situations to plan for

1. Emergency back at home

2. Theft of identification, passport, cash, credit cards

3. Natural or man-made disasters that leave you without housing and belongings

4. Personal injury or illness

5. Criminal assault or strong-arm robbery

Source: Ron Haskins, Force Pro

In the post-9-11 world, self-protection courses are popping up like targets in a shooting gallery. Hundreds of companies are teaching executives how to foil assassination attempts, survive hostage situations and handle an AK-47.

Before the course, Alexander would have crawled into the driver seat, on top of the dead man, to work the pedals — an approach that probably would have gotten her killed. She wouldn’t have thought of using the dead man’s leg to drive.

“There’s more to traveling and living a full life than just being determined,” Alexander said. “It helps to have some knowledge.”

The quest for protection knowledge is being driven more by fear of terror or crime than by actual threats. In fact, outside of the Middle East, the level of danger hasn’t really changed much in recent years, according to Kroll, the large security-training company.

You wouldn’t know it from zigzagging airport-security lines, but the number of terrorist attacks is declining. State Department figures show 208 attacks worldwide last year, down from 426 in 2000, and below levels seen over the past decade.

But people now are “hyper-aware” of terror, says Jack Stradley, managing director of security training at Kroll. The company trains at least 250 corporate travelers a year, roughly what it did before 9-11. It has enrolled another 1,000 people in new courses on Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There are literally hundreds of companies that have sprung up in the aftermath of 9-11 to capitalize on what they think is the security gold rush,” Stradley says. Many are taught by former soldiers or Iraq-war veterans.

After noticing a backlog of 30,000 soldiers waiting for training, two top military trainers, Randy Spivey and Roger Aldrich, opened a training center near Spokane last year.

The National Hostage Survival Training Center grew from their work at the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, where they developed survival training. In just a few months, the new privately run center has trained 8,000 people, mostly nonmilitary employees from the State Department, Homeland Security, FBI and Secret Service, Spivey says.

Add to the list corporate travelers, charity workers, actors — even teachers and principals — and Aldrich thinks more than a million people could be in the market for such training.

Alexander’s two-day, $850 course in Kent was taught by Ron Haskins, who says his background includes the Green Berets and a stint as a government bodyguard in Iraq, and current work teaching suicide-bombing prevention for the Department of Homeland Security.

Mike the messenger

Co-instructors at his company, Force Pro, want only their first names used because they still take sensitive assignments. Mike, a former Special Forces soldier, has a glass eye due to a bomb blast. He says he once carried a million dollars in cash from Chicago to Baghdad, alone, unarmed and while escorting the comely wife of an executive.

Matt describes himself as a former Navy SEAL and air marshal, one of those incognito agents licensed to pack heat on airplanes.

Haskins rents space for the class in the N.W. Tactical Urban Training Center, a fake city tucked inside a plain-Jane white warehouse in a Kent office park. The facility opened last year to provide space for police SWAT training.

Machine guns point down from the walls of the small classroom. A gumball machine dispenses plastic BBs that serve as ammo for these “airsoft” guns — replicas of real weapons that can be safely fired at people in protective gear.

The guns are used next door, in the 200-foot-by-100-foot warehouse. Plywood houses and parked cars create an urban landscape of bars, homes and hotel rooms where battles play out. Wednesday nights are for civilians.

Haskins’ 11-member class already knows some self-defense. Nearly everyone has martial-arts or weapons training. And many have been in dangerous situations.

Steve, a consultant for World Bank, was mugged at gunpoint in Brazil at midday in a busy traffic tunnel. Trained in martial arts, he fought the first attacker. When two more jumped out, he stopped and gave up his wallet.

Someone asks Haskins whether Steve should have fought on. What’s the training for, if you don’t use it?

Haskins likes people to learn enough to “act” against aggressors or captors. But sometimes knowing when not to act is just as important.

“He survived,” Haskins says. “He’s here today. That’s success.”

Haskins’ course, like many self-protection programs, doesn’t teach scripted responses. Instead, it stresses what seems to be a golden rule of such training: Learn to make judgments in dangerous situations.

Haskins wants students to anticipate threats, take steps to avoid them and have a plan for what to do if something happens. But they have to be flexible.

To that framework, the course attaches hundreds of tips on avoiding trouble and knowing what to expect if trouble finds you. They range from the mundane — hide the Rolex when you travel — to the rare: Grab the dead driver’s leg.

“It gives you a way to put common-sense pieces together so they’re useful,” Alexander said.

In hostage situations, for example, you can expect the initial assault to be very violent. Comply with the captors so you’ll survive.

Keep your mind active to lessen shock and help you spot opportunities for escape. Know that the rescue will be violent, too.

“That’s a time to keep your head down,” Haskins tells the class. “Don’t be a hero.” And don’t try to help the rescuers. They’ll tend to shoot at anything that moves.

If you’re stopped by police in a poor country, you can often get away with a small bribe. But don’t call it that. Ask what’s the fee for settling the matter right now. “They understand exactly — exactly — what you mean,” says Matt.

Sprinkled amid the details are truly terrifying facts like this: 7 pounds of plastic explosive is about half the size of a laptop computer. It can destroy a bus.

Or: Shrapnel from a blast can go right through both sides of a parked van. (Haskins shows slow-motion video.) You may not be as safe as you think you are.

Although terrorism looms large in people’s minds, the risk of becoming a terrorist victim is statistically almost nonexistent, especially compared with everyday crime.


Security trainer Ron Haskins, chief executive of Force Pro and a former government bodyguard in Iraq, demonstrates how to leave a moving vehicle that has been carjacked.

About 19 Americans a year die in terrorist incidents throughout the world, according to State Department and FBI numbers. Counting lives lost in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks pushes up the average to 260 a year over the past six years.

By contrast, violent crime — murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults — tallied 1.2 million U.S. victims a year, on average, over the same period.

You’re far more likely to be a victim of crime than terrorism, either in the United States or abroad.

Class member Pam Parker, a real-estate agent with Coldwell Banker Bain, says she’s been frightened while staffing open-house showings alone, when men came in and acted strangely. As a search-and-rescue volunteer, she was there when a young mother who’d gone jogging with her dog on a rural trail was found raped and murdered a few years ago.

Parker began taking self-defense and weapons training after that. “In this day and age, I think you can’t be careful enough,” Parker said. “I hope that doesn’t sound paranoid.”

To drive home the need to be aware, Haskins takes the class to Pacific Place in downtown Seattle. In the mall’s basement parking garage, the class looks for muggers lurking in doorways or under cars.

Walking through downtown, Mike shows how to check if people are following (they are). Mike makes fake entries into stores, then reverses out to see if anyone is awkwardly trying to keep up. The moves look natural yet let you spot a tail. Knowing you’re being followed lets you plan an evasion.

“Awareness makes you unpredictable,” Mike says. “You’re not on autopilot so it’s harder for them to guess what you’re going to do and take advantage.”

For deterring criminals, confidence is a good strategy. “Criminals are not looking for a fight. So if you’re not passive and you’re alert, they’ll avoid you.”

Baghdad without a plan

In a security exercise, a “gunman” waits to ambush a car and shoot the driver.

People often forget to plan even when traveling in the most dangerous areas, says Mike, who was in Baghdad’s Al Rasheed Hotel when it was attacked by missiles in 2003.

The attack killed three people and wounded 26, he says. But more than 60 were injured trying to get out afterward.

Many left their rooms without shoes or wallets. Four people arrived in the hotel lobby stark naked.

Nearly three-fourths of those interviewed later said they hadn’t even imagined that they could be attacked in a hotel in Baghdad.

The 10 percent who said they had planned weren’t injured and left the hotel with identification and other necessary items.

A week later, several class members said they were doing things a little differently. John Chen, whose company, Playtime, conducts corporate training, was with friends when demonstrators marched through downtown streets.

Normally, he might have joined in. But aware of the potential for violence in crowds, he suggested they watch from inside.

“We all felt safer,” he said.

Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3329 or