With an elevated threat of danger and risk to their personal safety, protection for heads of state, dignitaries and other VIPs isn’t an option. The U.S. Secret Service and Papal Swiss Guard are highly visible and well known names in personal protection. Others, such as Israel’s Shin Bet, whose very name translates to “the unseen shield,” are more covert and not as well known to the public.
In Canada, the RCMP’s Personal Protection Group (PPG), is responsible for protecting the prime minister, governor general and certain VIPs in the National Capital Region.
Although not well known to the general public, the PPG is a very elite group which is well respected and recognized in personal protection circles worldwide. With a dedicated strength of approximately 180 personnel and more that can be drawn upon as required, it is divided into three specialized details. The Prime Minister’s Protection Detail (PMPD) is responsible for protecting the PM and his immediate family, both in Canada and while abroad. Headquartered in Ottawa, it also guards the official residences, including 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa and the Harrington Lake Estate near Chelsea, Quebec. The Governor General’s Protection Detail (GGPD) is also headquartered in Ottawa and is tasked with protecting the governor general and their immediate family, both in Canada and while abroad. It also guards Rideau Hall, the official residence.
The Very Important Persons Security Section (VIPSS) protects dignitaries, Internationally Protected Persons (IPPs) and anyone else the minister of public safety designates. In Ottawa, the local VIPSS is a part of the larger PPG. However, there are several other permanently staffed VIPSS throughout the country and many more VIP trained officers that can be called upon, as required, in support of operations anywhere in Canada. These other VIPSS units report directly through their regional chain-ofcommand.
Typical VIPSS clients include ex-prime ministers, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, designated Canadian ministers and foreign diplomats. Its client list grows as threat levels increase.
The VIPSS are also tasked with supporting the PMPD and GGPD when these groups visit their area.
h2. Not your A,B,Cs (average babysitters & chauffeurs)
As a veteran officer with approximately 25 years of service, Cpl. Bill Demeau laughs when reflecting on how his colleagues view protective policing officers. “A lot of people within the police force tend to view VIP security as taxi driving for the elite.” As the national training co-ordinator, Demeau knows that this judgement couldn’t be further from the truth.
Once the officers have passed an extensive background check, personnel file review, fitness test and a series of interviews, they are tentatively accepted into the PPG. The key word is tentatively. Regardless of their rank or title, all officers entering the group are required to take an advanced driving course and basic two week VIP course with three primary components – bodyguarding, motorcade driving and security planning. They must pass each with a high standard to graduate.
They receive other specialized training and mentoring specific to the demands of their assigned unit and ultimately, the unique requirements of their clients. Much of it involves the operational and security aspects of protective policing. Also included is what could be considered hobby training, albeit non-optional and with a tactical twist. For example, Harrington Lake Estate is nestled on the edge of Harrington Lake and surrounded by the hills and trees of Gatineau Park. Therefore, all members of the PMPD are trained boat operators and skilled in using ATVs and snowmobiles.
As for the other hobby-type training, “just look at what a normal Canadian family does,” says Insp. Bruno Saccomani, OiC of the PMPD. “They might like to go hiking. They might like to go camping. Maybe they go trekking or fishing. All of that needs to be associated to a normal family in power as well; and, as protective policing officers, we must be able to provide a seamless service to all of those activities.”
If that isn’t interesting enough, Saccomani offers a teaser. “Speaking in general terms, many of our members are also trained in the art of motocrossing.”
In an environment where mistakes can be deadly and potentially pitch the country into crisis, the bar is always set high. Not surprisingly, this includes physical conditioning.
“Physical fitness plays a big part in personal protection,” says Supt. Guy Comeault, OiC of the PPG. “All of our officers are required to annually pass the Physical Abilities Requirements Evaluation in under four minutes (PARE-4) – and that applies to everyone in the group, from managers right down to the newest members, regardless of age.”
Cst. Gilles Gougeon agrees that physical fitness is extremely important. As a 44-yearold officer with 22 years of service, he knows first-hand the challenge an energetic and fit VIP can present.
“You know, Mr. Chrétien is a funny, happy-go-lucky type of guy. The way you see him on the news is pretty much how he is. When Mr. Chrétien was prime minister, he would go up those stairs (at Parliament) two at a time. If he could lose the bodyguards, he’d do it just as a challenge.”
Even though he’s now 75, Chrétien hasn’t lost a step, he adds. “Even today, if you’re working with Mr. Chrétien, he’s a man that walks at a fast pace. So, you better keep up with him!”
There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes and hidden elements to protecting VIPs that people, including other police officers, will never see. Most only see the well-dressed protection detail standing around doing what appears to be, at least on the surface, a lot of nothing, but as Comeault says, “we better be doing it well.”
h2. Switched on
Close protection officers, otherwise known as bodyguards, are the last line of defence between a threat and a VIP. If all of the other protection systems are breached, the bodyguard needs to be able to react confidently and without any hesitation. The more time and space that a bodyguard has to react, the better their chance of neutralizing the threat.
Time and space are created by always knowing what is going on around them. They must be totally tuned in to their environment, their eyes like lasers, constantly scanning the crowds and surroundings. They must evaluate what they see and hear. If a threat is detected, it must be dealt with quickly.
As any protection specialist will tell you, the hands are the most dangerous part of the human body. If you know what the hands are doing, you know what is going on. However, it is important to note that not all threats are as blatant as seeing a weapon or hearing the cries of “Allahu Akbar.” You can’t take anything or anyone for granted. Threats sometimes come from the unlikeliest of places.
A good example of this is the “shoe incident,” which occurred in December 2008, while then US President George Bush was speaking at the Iraqi Prime Ministers Palace in Baghdad. Baghdadiya television journalist Muntathar al Zaida threw both his shoes at Bush before being taken to the ground by a fellow journalist.
“Think about the sequence of events,” says Saccomani. “Here’s this journalist. All of a sudden, he lifts his left leg up at the knee, puts it on to the other knee, lowers his right hand down to the heel of his left shoe, pulls the shoe off with his right hand, brings the shoe back behind his head and then swings. I mean, how many opportunities did they have to tackle this guy? And then, it didn’t just happen once. It happened twice!”
Lessons learned? Saccomani acknowledges that individual mistakes happen but he has no patience for total failures. “There are no lessons learned here,” says Saccomani. “Someone should have detected the anomaly. It’s the basics.”
Saccomani uses an expression to emphasize the importance of being tuned in. “What I say to the guys is, once we’re in action, you’re switched on. You’re different people. The clues are there. They’re always there.”
h2. Security planning and visits
Whether it’s a foreign dignitary visiting Canada or our PM travelling here or abroad, much background planning is necessary. A co-ordinated effort between the PPG and multiple industry partners is required in order to ensure a safe and secure visit. These partners are from all levels, local all the way up to international, and may include governments, intelligence organizations, police forces, foreign security agencies and community groups. Information is collected and analyzed and a multi-layered security apparatus for the visit is built. The result of this massive effort is known as the security plan.
Security plans are highly individualized and depend on several factors. In general, think of answering who, what, where, when, why and how and then breaking each answer down into hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller categories and points. Again, the goal is to ensure a safe and secure visit for everyone, including the public, from start-tofinish. Every minute detail must be assessed.
Problems must be anticipated and solutions developed. Multiple emergency contingencies must be put in place. Literally everything – weather, location, indoor or outdoor, political scene, type of crowd, location of hospitals along the route, blind spots, all the way up to biological, chemical and other types of attacks – must be analysed, discussed and planned for. There must be as much control of the environment as possible. As Saccomani points out, all of this must be considered while keeping in mind the overall marketing message of the VIP.
“Whether it’s the prime minister or a foreign government official, it’s important that we know what the objective of the event is and what message they are trying to send. Then, we will look at how, from a security perspective, we can assist them in sending out their message constructively, all the while protecting them.”
When a foreign VIP plans to visit Canada, the PPG will be advised by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada’s Office of Protocol. Protocol office staff will discuss the nature of the visit and itinerary with PPG’s VIP co-ordinators and a security plan will be developed. While other foreign security agencies will be involved in this process, PPG will be the lead co-ordinator and ultimately, the lead protection force that ensures a safe and secure visit. All visits present their own set of unique challenges, though some are definitely more challenging than others.
When newly-elected U.S. President Barack Obama visited Ottawa in February, 2009 for his first official visit on Canadian soil, he was enjoying sky-high public opinion. Everyone wanted a glimpse of him so planning was about as in-depth as you can get. Despite having an extensive security plan and apparatus in place, Obama threw a curveball at the PPG when he decided to walk through Ottawa’s historic Byward Market district for a Beavertail and souvenirs.
“There’s a great example of where we’d have to adjust accordingly,” says Comeault. “It’s not in the program, it’s not prepared for and we have limited time to get on with it.”
When our prime minister visits a location, whether it’s in Canada or abroad, a travel officer (TO) from the PMPD is assigned to lead all aspects of the visit. Their responsibility is to co-ordinate the development of the security plan and, on the day of the visit, advance it through its scheduled course. The TO is also responsible for dealing with any problems that might arise.
When the prime minister visits abroad, the TO is also tasked with auditing the host country’s protection force. The TO conducts an in-depth evaluation of their capabilities, analyses the security package being offered and then identifies gaps that may not necessarily meet the PMPD’s standards. If there are gaps, security of the visit becomes a more integrated and involved operation between the PMPD and foreign protection force.
Security planning will always be a fine balance between security and accessibility. Protection specialists describe it in terms of driving and having your foot on the gas pedal. If things are happening on the world stage or intelligence suggests that more security is required, then you apply more pressure to the pedal. If things are quieter, you ease off a bit. It’s a constant adjustment which comes from both sides.
“I feel for a VIP coming into this new world in that all of a sudden they’re like a bird put into a cage,” says Comeault. “However, we have to ensure their safety and security. We’re not there to restrict their movement. We’re there to enable their movement in the safest way possible.”
h2. Constantly evolving
Personal protection will always be intelligence based. Security will always be adjusted based on local and world issues and the unique circumstances of each individual VIP and visit. In order to remain relevant, the security apparatus and manner in how that security is applied is constantly evaluated. If new tactics are employed by those wishing to harm Canada’s VIPs, then the PPG must also develop new tactics.
Saccomani spent a considerable amount of time developing the procedure manual for the PMPD, and even included an adapted quote from the great French poet, Victor Hugo:
The future has many names. For the weak, it means the unattainable. For the fearful, it means the unknown. And, for the courageous, it means opportunity.
Saccomani writes in the manual:
When there are novel and improved methods for performing our duties more effectively, the PMPD will adjust and remain amongst the elite of VIP protection.
“What I’m saying is that I realize that I don’t know it all,” says Saccomani. “We have the opportunity to travel the world and be exposed to so many different threats, systems and security protocols. I look at how other people do things. If someone else is doing something better than us, I’ll speak to our training people and have it injected right away.”
No hesitations. Switched on.