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Executive Protection Vehicles: How to Choose the Best Fit

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It is common knowledge that the principal is most vulnerable in and around the vehicle. There, they are exposed to direct attacks by crowds and malicious actors. Hence, making a good choice regarding executive protection vehicles and trained security drivers seems invaluable. For a brand new piece in our latest EP series, we talk to industry experts about choosing the best fit for your protective detail.

In fact, we all know countless examples of attacks on the principal while exiting or entering the car. However, most are easily preventable with the right mindset, situational awareness, and executive protection gear.

In this article on EP vehicles, we discuss:

  • Maintenance, selection, and inspection,
  • Sabotage and signs of tampering,
  • Safety tips for the principal and the EP team.

Let’s get right into it!

Pablo Ortiz-Monasterio, Co-founder of AS3 International

Many articles on vehicle inspection have been written explaining different aspects of what’s essential and the methodology for carrying it out. Still, they have little effect since these are seldom carried out promptly. So, instead of going into the regular “do this and not that,” let me venture into the core concepts that make the vehicle inspection logic.  

As security professionals, especially if we have done an activity for a long time, we tend to think that our experience, intelligence, and agility of thought are the only skills we need to handle complex situations. We call this “professional audacity.” But as human beings, we fall victim to optimism bias

When predicting what will happen to us tomorrow, next week, or fifty years from now, we overestimate the likelihood of positive events and underestimate the possibility of adverse events. This is just human nature. 

For security professionals, an inspection of executive protection vehicles has to do with customer service in most cases. Yet, they can become essential to prevent an attack. However tedious, checklists are crucial to any process that requires reliability, especially when lives are at stake. 

In a study performed in Scotland, since their implementation in 2008, checklists reduced surgery mortality rates by 37%. 

Checklists should be general and organized by subject. For example, the primary vehicle inspection checklist should include a first aid kit, but it should not have the kit’s contents. This would require a separate checklist. If the checklist becomes too long, it usually gets neglected. 

What are the common signs of sabotage and tampering?  

There are several types of sabotage or tampering with executive protection vehicles. The most common does not involve explosives or mechanical sabotage to cause an accident. Instead, they are used to get the driver to stop the car from committing a crime or creating a diversion to buy time for an attack. These include: 

Noise devices: These are any devices that would cause the driver to stop and exit the vehicle to check on a weird noise. Criminals use duct-taped bolts inside the wheel, or soda cans stuck into the exhaust pipes. These devices are usually very creative but harmless and easy to spot during a vehicle inspection. 

Diversion tactics: Some criminals use these to create a distraction that would force the driver to spend more time than usual next to stationary executive protection vehicles. For example, egg whites on the windshield or sticky substances on the door handles. These are hard to eliminate and are usually very successful in diverting the driver’s attention from anything happening in their surroundings.  

Assuming that although this could be a prank, it could also be a mechanism to get your attention away from what you’re supposed to do and will give them an advantage over the situation. Getting away from that vehicle and orienting yourself before deciding is essential to your success. 

Tracking devices: These used to be big bulky and easy to spot, especially since the batteries needed to power them were big and heavy. However, these have changed over time. Now, Apple Tags and other tracking devices can be easily hidden and are much more challenging to find. Security professionals must perform routine sweeps to find them. Fortunately, Apple Tags usually notify people around them if they are trying to broadcast their location so that a simple iPhone can be used as a bug sweeper. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all trackers.  

Mechanical sabotage: There are many ways of messing with a vehicle. Some are easy to spot, like a flat tire. Yet, some are harder to detect and could have different goals, such as stopping the vehicle or causing an accident. Cars are susceptible to tampering, and sensors will alert you if something is wrong with your vehicle. What you do next will determine your success or failure. 

On the other hand, some tampering is not that easy to detect. For example, sugar in the gas tank will make your vehicle stop within a few miles from the point of tampering. Again, criminals use all these tactics to stop the vehicle. 

Explosive devices: This is the most unlikely of all, and it’s more something that happens in the movies. Yet, it has happened in real life, and it’s always possible depending on your principal’s risk. 

So, if, based on your risk assessment, there is a risk of an assassination attempt, then looking for any foreign devices on the vehicle is a must. Anything from a soda cup left on top of the vehicle to anything that just doesn’t fit could be a threat. Knowing your vehicle is key to finding anything that might have changed during your inspections. 

What are your top safety tips for the principal and the EP team regarding working in and around executive protection vehicles? 

  • Never remain in a stationary vehicle. Statistically, the most dangerous place in the world is a stationary vehicle. As a protection professional, you must be aware that once your car is immobilized, your options are limited to submission or fighting. (The former being the best bet under normal circumstances.) If the vehicle stops, you’ve already lost.  

Under this premise, you must orient your decisions always to leave an exit route and limit your time on a stationary vehicle to the absolute minimum. 

  • The safest place for your principal in the vehicle is the back seat on the right side.  

This place is furthest from the first impact area, usually the driver’s door. If a criminal wants to harm you or your principal, his first task is immobilizing your vehicle. Therefore, neutralizing the driver is usually a priority. 

This seat has the closest access to the curb, allowing minimum exposure and minimizing stopped time. 

  • Control your vehicle’s surroundings: know where your vehicle has been and who has access. The more you can control this, the easier it will be to avoid unexpected manipulation. 

Avoid valet parking when possible. They have unrestricted access to your executive protection vehicles and anything contained in them.

executive protection vehicles

Gerardo Corona, Director at ProRescue Mexico

The protectee’s physical integrity remains the central dimension in executive protection. The largest number of attacks — if not all — are conducted with firearms, so we must talk about armored vehicles. In technical terms, a good EP armored vehicle is defined in two areas of performance:

  • Ballistic resistance to a specific number of rounds, calibers, bullets’ structure, and their velocities.
  • Vehicle functionality, or it must be capable of moving safely during and after the attack.

Maintenance, selection, and inspection – how to do them properly?

Armored vehicles find their parallel in F1 racing cars. Both must deliver 100% performance and accuracy in a specific period. For example, it could be two hours in Monaco or two minutes in Sinaloa. So, it is a serious task to select, inspect and maintain a technical vehicle.

In simple terms, the selection must match the operational environment, threat level, and drivers’ skills. In addition, maintenance must be strict and tight to the armoring company revision dates. 

If the vehicle is on daily and demanding use, we always recommend reducing it to half the maintenance schedule. For example, if the service manual sets oil revisions every six months, take it to three. And please don’t forget to check tires daily, air pressure, tires’ sides, and tread condition. They are fundamental to obtaining the best performance of all other vehicle components. The same as F1, tires are critical to a winning strategy.

Our suggestion about inspections in standard operations (except in high-risk environments) is simple too. For the daily driver reception, set an inspection log form similar to car rentals or insurance companies (copy from them). Remember to include tires and other fundamental mechanical values such as:

  • Oil, 
  • Cooling/antifreeze liquid, 
  • Battery, 
  • Electronic connections, and 
  • Fuses. 

Then make a quick ride to check warning lights. 

A second-level inspection should be conducted with experts using scanners and other diagnostic tools for the powertrain, transmission, suspension, and all electronic components, emphasizing safety systems.

What are the common signs of sabotage and tampering?

If the daily inspection log is accurate and performed by committed security drivers, above 90% of physical sabotage or manipulation attempts should be identified. I could say that the other 10% is in the spectrum of the impressive amount of electronics, telematics, and data in modern vehicles in automotive cybersecurity. 

The key concept in managing this problem is access:

  • Who, when, and how has access to the vehicle? 

Therefore, every EP team must map the operational cycle of the car and provide answers to these questions, besides associating the threats and enabling countermeasures.

What are your top safety tips for the principal and the EP team regarding working in and around executive protection vehicles?

Answers are as dynamic as possible scenarios, and tips will vary for every situation. However, I prefer to stick to the principles of the vehicle security quadrant. Thus, the first and general tenet is: Take care of every dimension or area of the quadrant as if you have a clear and present danger.

  • Work on the driver’s emergency skills with close-to-reality training scenarios.
  • Maintain your executive protection vehicles to deliver 100% at any time.
  • Conduct protective intelligence, countersurveillance, and route analysis as a way of living.

Michael Trott, VP of Global Safety and Security at Discovery Land Company

As someone who started his close protection career as a young, professionally trained security driver of a level B-7 armored vehicle in Germany — with a principal who was on a terrorist hit list by the same group who was suspected of targeting and assassinating German banker, Alfred Herrhausen, while riding in his armored Mercedes — I can tell you first hand.

Executive protection vehicles are critical in our business. After this assassination, my keen appreciation of what may save my principal and my life took on a whole new meeting.

Anyone who has been in the EP industry for any length of time will tell you that vehicles are perhaps one of the essential tools in our arsenal. However, just having a car is not enough. And those who don’t take these machines seriously can be a dangerous deathtrap or an extremely beneficial asset. 

Medical events and vehicle accidents kill more principals than any other risk factors. Therefore, your ability to drive, maintain and understand an EP vehicle’s dynamics is paramount in our business. 

To quote the father of modern-day professional security drivers from around the world, Tony Scotti: “An average driver only needs to be able to use a minimum of 40% of a vehicle’s capability. On the other hand, a security driver needs to be operating with 80% of the vehicle’s capability. This requires training.” 

To Tony’s point, driver training is not once and done but should be at least an annual scheduled event for any professional drivers. You don’t go to the range just once, and you just don’t hit the track and skid pad just once either. 

There are many vital components to selection, training, inspection, and maintaining executive protection vehicles. Still, in my opinion, I like to keep using the KISS concept when it comes to cars. Vehicles are no different from weapons, planes, medical equipment, TSCM, and other specialized equipment. Engage with an EP vehicle SME to assist on all components but not limited to:

Vehicle selection

  • If you are using a risk-based program, you’ll need to consider if armored is necessary and what would be the appropriate level. If so, engage with a vetted and trusted armored vehicle manufacturer, and don’t buy cheap.
  • Sedan or SUV, situation and maybe principal performance may dictate.
  • Vehicle selection and inspection are paramount when traveling and out of your everyday operations. Allow plenty of advance time to conduct proper checks and switch out if necessary.
  • Use run-flat tires.

Maintenance

  • Fluids: While vehicles today are more complex than ever and require professional care, checking fluids is the one thing anyone can do routinely.
  • Tires: Check all tires for proper recommended pressures, check tread levels and inspect for any obvious signs of wear or tear, nails, cuts, etc.
  • Maintain good maintenance records and assign this duty to someone with the right level of experience and commitment to the assignment.

Vehicle security

  • Treat your principal’s and any EP vehicle like the asset it is and keep it locked at all times.
  • Store your vehicle in a secure garage, alarmed, and under camera coverage.
  • When on travel, consider using covert Wi-Fi cameras to cover overnight if warranted.
  • Keep your vehicle clean and the area around your vehicle clean. Before using it again, inspect the car, door handles, windows, and the ground area around it for signs of tampering. 
  • For high-threat programs, know what your vehicle looks like underneath and under the hood and inspect both areas before driving for anything added or out of the norm.
  • If you suspect any level of tampering, do not use or open the doors, clear the areas and call the proper authorities. Use a backup vehicle/s and consider this as a possible attempt on your principal’s life and consider other necessary countermeasures.

Sometimes, the little things we don’t consider make a big difference.

  • Always know where the keys are and when possible, have a second set of keys on you or one of your teammates.
  • Know how to operate every single component of your vehicle, every team member, as you never know when you might have to jump in the driver’s seat, including door locks, windows, climate front and back, radio and SAT channels, etc.
  • Depending on your risk factors and a major decision, consult with an SME about disengaging the driver’s airbag. In the event of an emergency evacuation or defense, driving your driver’s airbag does not deploy and impact their ability to drive in a crisis but doesn’t make this decision likely.
  • Seatbelts. Simple, everyone wears them without exception, especially the driver and principals.

Finally, and what has been an emerging threat for many years now that most have not taken seriously enough is that most executive protection vehicles today are a significant cyber risk

Once a smart vehicle is hacked, it must be considered that a skilled adversary can do everything. They can track, change settings, take over key controls, and even listen to conversations inside your vehicle — just something else to keep you up at night.

In Conclusion

In our second article on EP essentials, we discussed how inspection, maintenance, and selection of executive protection vehicles play a prominent role in ensuring a safe driving environment for the principal and their entourage.

To wrap it up, here are the main takeaways:

  • Don’t succumb to optimism bias. In other words, don’t believe that adverse events are less likely to affect you.
  • Implement checklists, as they are crucial to prevent attacks on principals in and around executive protection vehicles.
  • Be wary of noise and tracking devices, and diversion tactics.
  • Know that explosive devices are the most unlikely of all.
  • Keep armored cars in mind when traveling to more volatile areas with a high risk of firearm attacks.
  • Consider that vehicle selection must match the operational environment, threat level, and drivers’ skills.
  • Know that daily inspection logs help identify above 90% of physical sabotage and manipulation attempts.
  • Note that an EP vehicle can either be a dangerous deathtrap or an extremely beneficial asset. It all depends on the protector’s mindset.
  • Keep in mind that a security driver needs to operate with 80% of the vehicle’s capability.

Finally, as we got into the nitty-gritty of executive protection vehicles, we hope to have directed your attention to some less-known aspects of this topic.

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