Sunday, November 8, 2015

Playing It Safe: Personal Safety Tips from Charlie Fox

I hope you’ll forgive me this week if I hand over control to a kind of guest blogger*. I wanted to begin an occasional series about safety – personal safety, safety at home, in the car, on the street, in a dangerous situation. So, who better to talk about these topics than my protagonist, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox?

Charlie had a short-lived career in the Women’s Royal Army Corps, passing selection for Special Forces training, but being dishonourably discharged following a court martial. (And I wouldn’t ask her about that if I were you.) She then taught self-defence for women in a small northern UK city, and eventually moved into a career as a bodyguard – initially for a London-based outfit run by her former army training instructor, Sean Meyer.

When Sean was offered a partnership in Parker Armstrong’s prestigious close-protection agency in New York City, Charlie moved with Sean to Manhattan. She has been based there ever since.

I had to laugh when I saw the title of this post, because let me tell you, ‘playing it safe’ is not a phrase that ever made it anywhere near my school reports – nor my military appraisals, come to think of it.

That doesn’t mean I’m reckless, don’t get me wrong. If the situation demands it, I’ll get stuck in, but not without weighing up the risks and the odds first. And I’ll go a long way to avoid trouble if I can manage it. It was one of the problems I always found when I used to teach self-defence classes. People learn a few tricks and think they’re invincible. Never has that old saying ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ been more true than when it comes to personal safety.
Probably not a bad place to start.

I have to say, though, that these days my chances of being randomly mugged or attacked on the street are far lower than they used to be. No, that doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly grown fangs or another head. It’s just that I keep my mobile phone in my pocket and I’m not obsessed with texting, tweeting, or checking my damn email every thirty seconds.

If you’ve read Tony Walker’s excellent book HOW TO WIN A GUNFIGHT – and I’d recommend it – he describes the system developed by retired USMC lieutenant colonel John Dean ‘Jeff’ Cooper, which lists the four states of consciousness – White, Yellow, Orange and Red.

White is totally away with the fairies. These are the people who fall into fountains while answering texts:

Or walk off the edge of railway platforms while playing on their handheld gamer:

They are completely unaware of what’s going on around them, of potential dangers or threats. They may as well have VICTIM tattooed across their forehead in big letters.

Basically, the only time you should be in condition White is when you’re unconscious. Or dead. And even then, you’ll need to provide a note from your mum.

Yellow is the state you should aim for. Think domestic cat. I’ve always found it’s really, really hard to creep up on those furry little devils, however relaxed they appear to be. When you’re in condition Yellow, you’re aware of what’s going on, of who’s around you, and what their intentions might be –like stuffing you in a wire basket and carting you to the vet. This is not to say you have to be paranoid about things, but it might save you a lot of pain in the long run if you practice remaining alert while you’re out and about. Use shop windows to check out who’s following rather than checking if those Pilates classes are paying off.

If you wear heels to work and know you have any walking to do later, take a pair of flats to change into. Running shoes of some description would be best, but even those fold-up ballet-pump type things are better than five-inch stilettos.

Keep those killer heels close to hand, though – you never know when they might come in useful.

If you carry a bag, put the strap across your chest rather than over your shoulder. There are some great bags out there with steel wire in the strap and woven into the material of the bag itself, which makes the old ‘slash and grab’ technique much more difficult for a would-be thief. For example, this is a Metrosafe shoulder bag:

If you’re wearing a rucksack, make sure the zips are closed. Tie something through the ends of the zips and loop them round to the front of you, so at least if someone tries to slide a zip open, you’ve half a chance of spotting it. Or get a steel mesh net which you can lock to an immovable object.

And just in case the guys are looking all smug at this point – because they’re not the rucksack type and wouldn’t be seen dead carrying a manbag – wallets in back pockets are even more vulnerable. There’s an old pickpocket technique called ‘pinch and push’ and I’ve seen it done successfully even with the tightest trousers. The thief falls into step behind the unsuspecting victim (who’s in condition White, obviously), nips a small fold of material of the back pocket containing the wallet between finger and thumb, and, having loosened the wallet’s snug fit, gently pushes it upwards with another finger. Takes no more than a couple of seconds. Of course, for the victim it means spending hours on the phone later trying to convince all the credit card companies that they really weren’t the one who maxed everything out on disposable electronic items.

Above all, when you’re in condition Yellow, look confident. Muggers are, by their nature, opportunity criminals. They’re predators who wait for likely looking prey and strike almost on impulse. If you look alert and confident, they’re going to pass. After all, it won’t be long before someone else wanders along with their ear-buds in place and their eyes firmly fixed on that tiny screen …

Having a dog is also a good deterrent, by the way. A few years ago, I dog-sat for a friend on a sink estate back home. (RIOT ACT) Pauline owned a Rhodesian Ridgeback called Friday who had once, in her absence, chased a delivery man up onto the roof of her garden shed and kept him up there all morning. That kind of reputation is pure gold when it comes to security.

Even those dogs that look like a little fluffy rat on a stick can usually be relied upon to make lots of noise. Of course, some people have to go one step further.

Orange is the next level up. Because you’re alert, you’ve spotted a potential problem before it’s become an actual problem, and you have time to make a considered decision what to do about it. Our primal instinct is for fight or flight.

Flight is the best option, every time. Trust me on this – I have the scars to prove it.

You leave a restaurant or a cinema, or a late-night shopping mall. You’re alone, and you notice there’s someone loitering near your car. Or they could simply be between you and your car. You could brazen it out, walk straight through with your best stern look and hope to intimidate them. Sharp did this once at a gas station in a run-down area, and got away with it thanks to the fact she was wearing a T-shirt from the Houston Top Gun Handgun Training Center. If you’ve just come from teaching your karate class and are still in your gi with your faded black belt tied casually around your waist, you’ll probably get away with it, too.

But why risk it?

Go back inside the restaurant, cinema, or shopping mall, and either wait until the threat has gone, or ask members of staff to walk you to your car. OK, if you’re a hunky six-footer who regularly wins Chuck Norris look-alike contests, you may feel a bit silly doing this, but if you regularly struggle to convince roller coaster attendants that you really are old enough and tall enough to ride, then it’s good advice.

Then we come to Red. It’s all kicked off. Someone’s in front of you and they’re armed and they’re directly threatening you. Having been previously in condition Yellow, however, their arrival won’t have come as a surprise, will it? You will already have had time to make a decision – fight or flight.
What you MUST NOT do is freeze. It’s an instinctive reaction to a predator, because as anybody who’s been in a sniper area knows, immobility makes you much harder to spot where any kind of movement will make you stand out every time.

Running is a good option. In fact, running is the best option. Sadly, I was never in the sprint league. Yelling is also a good option. Equally sadly, research has shown that you’ll get far more attention as a woman in trouble if you shout, “Fire!” rather than “Help!” or even “Rape!”

Personally, even if my would-be assailant has a knife or a gun, I’d still try to make a break rather than face the consequences of letting him do what he wants. If you allow yourself to be abducted and taken to a secondary location of your assailant’s choosing, the risk to you DOUBLES.
Besides, either he’s going to shoot me, in which case I’m stuffed anyway, or he’s just using the weapon in an attempt to subdue and control. Running means he has to run after me, or hit a moving target.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on gun ranges over the years. I’ve seen people blasting away who didn’t worry the target at distances of less than ten feet. In fact, most of them couldn’t hit an elephant if they were sitting on its back.

To be a decent shot, you need to put in a lot of practice. Carrying an illegal trophy piece on the street does not constitute practice. Therefore, the chances are that if you can put some initial distance between you and an assailant armed with a handgun, they’re going to miss. Risky? Maybe, but it’s one you have to calculate for yourself in the time it takes for Orange to turn Red.

And what do you do if flight is not an option?

Well, if she lets me back, maybe I’ll go into that next time …

So, have you ever found yourself in an unsafe situation? How did you get out of it? How would you do things differently if faced with the same situation again? How have you engineered your characters into situations that required some ingenious method of extraction? And would you like me to continue this series of tips from from Charlie?

This week’s Word of the Week is maschalismos, which means to prevent the dead from rising by making them incapable of doing so – ie, the cutting off of the feet, hands or head. The word comes from Ancient Greek and was also the term used in later Greek customary law.

*OK, so Charlie’s not exactly a guest blogger, but I always try to do what the voices in my head tell me to …


  1. I've managed to avoid any seriously unsafe situations by living SOLIDLY in the yellow (and I'm not talking urine). Well, there was that one time a bully tried to bully me, in high school, when I was SOLIDLY in the white because I was hanging out with my future wife and my brain was elsewhere, but the brazen steely gaze got me safely out of that one.

    Maschalismos, huh? Been binge-watching "The Walking Dead," have we?

    As for doing what the voices in your head tell you to, maybe that's how you end up in orange and red...

    1. Erm, is this a good time to admit I've never watched 'The Walking Dead' ? And yes, I rather think Charlie may be me with the brakes off and the throttle jammed side open!

  2. I fight like I drink. I always make the first one count.

    1. LOL, Eden. Love that one. But all joking aside, once you've decided that your only course of action is ... action, you really do have to be decisive. No point going at it half-heartedly. All that's going to do is annoy your attacker even more.

  3. I love Charlie as a Guest Blogger. She's far more entertaining than Jeff Cooper's longtime back page column in Guns & Ammo...though I must admit to often quoting his (non-Vantone) Color Chart System--even in my Kaldis novels. I also admit (in another life) of considering attending his Arizona Gunsite Academy. And yes, I'm a big believer in the "run" scenario--which I'm convinced once saved my life on a dark side street in 1968 Times Square--though far too often in my youth I went for the macho, and found nearly maschalismos. We should compare scars.

    1. I thought for a moment you were going to say Charlie is far more entertaining that me, Jeff. (Which is true, of course.)

      The only reason the 'run away' instinct doesn't kick in immediately with me is because I am a v-e-r-y slow runner, which is one of the reasons I learned self-defence in the first place.

  4. Thank you, Charlie. I am one who is frequently jealous of your clients, because they can stay relaxed and leave the defense to you!

    One question: is it really a smart thing to yell "Fire," if someone has a gun pointed at you? On the other hand, I friend of mine once said that if someone broke into my home, I should call the Fire Department,not the police. Because the firemen would get to me faster. Living in a really safe city as I do, I haven't had to do it, but I believe it to be true.

    1. LOL, I think the choice was "Fire!" or "Rape!" but if they've got a gun you might want to rethink your options, Annamaria.

      And yes, I think the Fire Brigade probably do respond a lot faster. But if the burglar had gone by the time they arrived, I should imagine the fire officers might be more than a little ticked off ...

  5. I'm definitely in the flight category. As they say, you don't have to run faster than a charging lion, you just have to run faster than one person in your party.

    1. Yeah, Stan. Unfortunately -- as mentioned to Jeff -- that one person would be me ...

      Remind me not to go on safari with you :)