A HEFAT with an Emphasis on Threats Women Journalists Face

Last May, I took part in the first HEFAT of my career. HEFAT, for the uninitiated, stands for Hostile Environment and Emergency First Aid Training. It is good practice for many journalists to take part in one at least once, and it’s nearly mandatory for reporters working in conflict zones. One program that offers such training to journalists was founded by Sebastian Junger after his colleague and friend, photojournalist Tim Hetherington, was wounded in Misrata, Libya, and died on the way to the hospital. If someone around him had had emergency first aid training, Hetherington may have survived his wounds.

That program is called Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, and it underscores the fact that the training is as much for the participants as it is for the other journalists who they will work with in the field. Aside from emergency first aid, many of the training programs offered also include a series of scenarios meant to test the participants response mechanisms and give them a sense of how they will response under duress. Risk assessment, digital security and situational awareness are also included.

Before I applied to the HEFAT in May, I knew I was overdue for the training. As a wire service correspondent and, subsequently, as an independent journalist, I had been in plenty of situations where I could have made use of training to increase my own safety and that of my colleagues. Before I left for Medellin, Colombia, as an IWMF fellow in the Adelante reporting program, I had the opportunity to take part in another HEFAT training provided by the foundation and put on in the mountains outside of Mexico City.

First of all I should say – and this probably depends to a certain degree on the temperament of each participant – that HEFATs aren’t really that fun. They include a set of situations meant to induce stress, like staged kidnappings and simulated scenarios where multiple seriously wounded people have to be treated. But HEFATs are useful. Being artificially kidnapped in a HEFAT forces you to think seriously about your preparation, vulnerabilities and resources, and it gives insight into your own stress response.

The HEFAT provided by IWMF, however, was unique. It differentiated itself from both the HEFAT training I had received in May, as well as from the ones I had become familiar with from afar through colleagues who had gone through similar programs. Most of the time, HEFATs, like so many other things in the world, default to a male-centric approach. There is little emphasis on challenges that women face in the field, especially sexual violence and gender-based discrimination. Trainers who deal with hands-on scenarios are often men. There is little self-defense, with a preferred emphasis on de-escalation techniques (for some good reasons).

But in Mexico, the IWMF HEFAT centralized the experiences of women journalists. One of the trainers was a woman who had been a member of the UK military for 22 years and served in the special forces. There was a session dedicated exclusively to sexual violence and hands-on training designed to address primarily gender-specific scenarios (men can also obviously be targets of sexual violence, but it is overwhelmingly directed at women). There was intense, repetitive training in a few basic self-defense moves.

IWMF fellows at the HEFAT training in Mexico.

HEFATs generally deal in scenarios and possibilities that, in the best case, never happen. The idea is to be prepared, but also to take to precautions to try and avoid real danger. Still, journalists face threats almost everywhere they work, and it’s necessary to take those threats seriously. Almost every journalist knows someone who has been targeted. I was in the same journalism class as Kim Wall, a gifted reporter who lost her life doing her work. Just after the IWMF HEFAT, my colleague and reporting partner Alejandra Rajal was detained by Colombian authorities for 11 hours before being denied entry into the country. Taking part in a HEFAT, especially one designed to address women journalists in the field, can be a small tool of empowerment in an increasingly perilous world.