I have been fortunate to have experienced working with vehicle motorcades on hundreds of occasions all over the world in my 40 years of working in the executive protection industry, and I thought I would share some best practices and things I have learned along the way. The bulk of my experience comes from being the advance agent for members of an internationally well-known and prominent (sometimes controversial and with threats) family that conducted speaking tours both domestically and internationally, who traveled mostly by private jet (sometimes commercial) with a large entourage. Examples of the tours are a 50 city US tour in 50 days (I did every other city), and a 120 country world tour that lasted just under two years that took me to 60 countries, and there were multiple other tours over the years.
The typical motorcade size that I dealt with was three to seven vehicles, plus a luggage vehicle picking up 10 to 14 passengers. The drivers of the vehicles were often staff members of a local organization, so they were familiar with the local environment, but they were not trained in traveling together in a motorcade, so it was essential to get them together before the arrival and go over motorcade fundamentals and vehicle placement. As the Advance agent, I would most often ride in the right front seat of the lead vehicle as I wanted to arrive at the arrival location before the main vehicles, and I would emphasis to the driver that under no uncertain terms, was anyone other than me was to ride in that right front seat (on more than one occasion I had to drag someone out of my seat).
The motorcades would typically travel from the FBO private airport to a residence, then from the residence to the venue and back, and then the following day back to the plane. There were periodic side trips to other locations such as the countries head of states palace or a meeting with another notable individual or group. Occasionally, a police escort was provided or arranged to facilitate traffic and accommodate the principal’s arrivals and departures. Most of these motorcades would be deemed unofficial and private while some would be official with full authorization from a government organization.
Advance Planning-Vehicle and Seating needs
My first concern in planning was the number of passengers and the seating and vehicle requirements of those in what we would refer to as the “Main Party”. There were a number of variables with regards to the Principal’s vehicle generally called the “Main Vehicle”. If the Principal (P1) was traveling with his wife (P2), they had the back seat of the Main vehicle. The right front seat options were for a local host, a personal assistant, a family member, or security agent.
A note about this; as this was a private detail, we were not mandated by protocols required by an agency (such as the State Department), so these variables would be determined by the Principal, not security. A retired State Department Agent once told me that we “had to have a security agent in the right front seat” and I explained to him that I understand State Department Protocols and why they have them, but we were not the state department, we were private, and this was something he needed to understand working in the private sector. I know of many horror stories of former government agents trying to mandate government protocols on their clients and losing the contract because many principals will not put up with it.
After sorting out the Principal’s needs, the next job is making sure there are seats and vehicles for everyone in the Main Party. As simple as this sounds, it can be incredibly frustrating to have your Principal arrive with guests, and you do not have enough seats for them. This can happen for a number of reasons such as vehicles being smaller in size than expected (this happens with smaller suburban’s in south America for example that seat 5 and not 7), non-essential locals or VIP’s riding in the motorcade taking up a needed seat, and the overall excitement of a notable person arriving.
On tours where the main party traveled frequently together, they would usually have somewhat of a set routine as to what vehicle they rode in and what seat they sat in. Because of certain variables, this was not always consistent but was a general practice. For example, a traveling photographer would often ride in the lead vehicle with myself so he could get photos of the Principals arrival which often entailed a photo op with a local VIP who came to greet the Principal (which often included heads of state or former heads of state). If the Principals assistant did not ride in the main vehicle, they would also typically ride in the lead vehicle as well.
Threat Level and Security Needs
My next concern was the threat level and local security concerns. If the threat level was low, we would have a lead vehicle, a main vehicle, possibly a second main vehicle (Main 2) for additional family members or VIP’s, and a follow vehicle (tail vehicle). If additional vehicles were needed, we labeled them vehicle 5 and so forth. The luggage vehicle is just that, or if two are used, luggage 1 and luggage 2. (Another note here is that there are a variety of terms used in describing vehicles and principals, so my suggestion is to not get caught up in what one agency or another or a private detail calls each vehicle, just adapt and go with the flow. One thing I learned over the years is make it work. The same goes for radio codes and detail terminology.)
If the threat level were elevated as it sometimes was in certain countries, we would request that an armed agent ride in the right front seat of Main 1 vehicle. We would then place a security vehicle (security lead vehicle) in front of and behind the Main Car or Main 2 (security tail vehicle). This may be done in addition to all other vehicles. These vehicles would sometime accommodate other passengers if practical or be only for security personnel.
When we would pick up planeside or curbside, my job as the advance agent was to first make sure that the Principal was safely placed in their vehicle along with selected family or staff, and then the next level of family or VIP’s placed in their vehicle. Other staff members of the entourage would often go to the vehicles where they most often went, and then I would have to take a head count to ensure all members of the main party were in a vehicle. This is best described as herding cats; yes, it’s like that!
I would tell all the drivers to not move until I instructed them that is was safe to do so and we had everyone accounted for. On a few occasions a member of the main party who decided to use the bathroom before coming off the plane would come out to see the vehicles about to pull away. It was also critical to have drivers stop and put the vehicle in park. It is quite distressing that while you are assisting a principal into the car that the vehicle begins to roll forward as the driver eases his foot off the brake pedal.
Whenever there was the presence of paparazzi, fans, or media gathered around the main vehicle, it is critical to pull out slow and easy. It is helpful to have local security personnel help if available, and if not, we would use security personnel from follow vehicles to help get the main vehicle out and rolling, and then have them get back into their vehicles. On some occasions I was actually able to get the help of some paparazzi who got to know me over the years. I would just ask them, “hey, can you help me get the car out of here?”.
Route Planning and P.A.C.E.
A critical part of advance planning is going over route selection. As this is a topic that volumes of information are covered on, I will just emphasis the use of the acronym, PACE, which stands for Primary Route, Alternate routes, Contingency Plans, and Emergency Plans. I have been using PACE for many years, especially when conducting high speed advances where you arrive one day or just hours before the Principal and have limited time to conduct your advance. PACE generally covers the essential needs of the advance.
The Primary Route is typically the most expedient and fastest route. Alternate routes are considered to avoid threats, in case of heavy traffic, or a problem with the primary route or arrival location. In some countries, there was just one road from the airport to the hotel: so much for alternate routes! Contingency plans would include sightseeing options along the route, unplanned stops at a restaurant along the way, or a change in plans that happen along the way. And emergency plans that might require a trip to hospital or a safe location such as a police station.
Whenever possible I would run routes in advance multiple times to look for chokepoints, construction, and what normal activity looked like, as well as the condition of the road. In some countries, while the roads appeared to be paved, they were incredibly rough, and for the comfort of the passengers, it was necessary to reduce the speed of travel. Running the routes during the actual time the Principal would be using the route was not always possible, so it was important to discuss conditions with the local drivers. In Bangkok, the was a location we called the 20-minute light at a six-way intersection. No matter what, we could not avoid this light or speed up the time it took to go through that area, especially in a motorcade.
Motorcade size and “Main Package”
No matter the total size of the overall motorcade, my primary concern was what I referred to as the “Main Package” which consisted of 3-4 vehicles; Lead, Main, Main 2 (if required), and Tail/follow. Based on practical experience, I know I can handle 3 to 4 vehicles in traffic. Three is workable and four is tight. Any consideration to keep all vehicle together without a police escort front and rear is near impossible.
While in Japan for two weeks, we traveled every day with nine vehicles. Again, my primary concern was the main package. The additional vehicles were considered non-essential with regards to my immediate security concerns. Remember, this is a private detail motorcade typically traveling without government support, so you have to manage what you can manage, and my experience is that I could control 3-4 vehicles in traffic.
Traffic and Lights
Driving through traffic and trying to keep three vehicles together is quite the chore. What I have worked out over the years is that if the lead vehicle goes through a light and the main vehicle and tail vehicle is held up, the lead vehicle can slow or stop and wait for the main and tail to catch up and get back together. If the Lead vehicle and Main vehicle make a light, but the tail vehicle is held at the light, the lead and main will continue along but slow up so the tail can catch up.
Now is an appropriate time to remind everyone we are not talking about driving in Iraq with a PSD detail. We are talking about a private detail driving in Manhattan or Paris with a low threat. If a vehicle comes along and gets between the lead and main vehicle, it is not a breach in security protocols that requires that intervening car to be taken out (which has happened with folks returning from high threat details transitioning to low threat details). It has also happened when some agents were trained in the private sector are told “you never let anyone get between a car in the motorcade”!
When a car squeezes in between two cars it is most often because they want to turn or there is a merge going from 2 lanes to one. Those cars that squeezed in will most often pull out before too long and the motorcade can get back together. Unless it is a suspicious vehicle that was notice during surveillance detection, they should not be a serious concern and it is just typical traffic mannerisms. If it is concerning that a vehicle intervened, the vehicle in front can stop and wave the car around them.
I’m sure to catch some grief from some for this but keep in mind non-government low threat private motorcades with no authority are different than government run motorcades, or those used in high threat operations. On the private side, it is not always possible to keep cars from merging into a motorcade, especially around traffic circles, or intersections like in Italy where 5 roads merge together and there are no lights. Typically, it is every other car merging through and once you get through you work on reassembling together when it’s possible.
The best team I worked with was a team from France and the three cars went everywhere together, stayed together through lights, and no cars ever intervened between the three and no one honked horns and there was no problems for the entire trip over 7 days. I worked with them in several other locations in Europe and it was always a pleasure. I will say that when we first worked with them and took them into an empty parking lot and did some J turns (back when that was fashionable), it did get their attention and they became quite motivated to be the best team and they did excel at driving from that point forward.
Overt and Covert Motorcades
Most motorcades are pretty visible and overt. They can and usually draw attention. This cannot be helped, and this can also be a deterrent (looks official), but there are methods we used on occasion to defuse the situation. When we felt it was best to lower our profile, we would sometimes use a loose formation or split the motorcade into two car segments. We would also augment vehicle placement by using different lanes, and varying the distance between vehicles, to diffuse the appearance of a motorcade. This could also be helped by using low profile vehicles in place of say all black suburbans.
Surveillance detection is absolutely critical from the arrival until the departure along all routes. When in a recognizable motorcade, we generally did not use surveillance detection routes (SDR) as it was not always practical (three cars can manage this but more than that can be burdensome). Generally, in a motorcade we assumed that we were being surveilled and would call out vehicles over the radio that everyone should keep an eye on. On departures we would often be followed to the airport and would have to have someone get out of a tail vehicle at the gate to the airport to keep fans or well-wishers from following the motorcade out to the plane.
I mentioned earlier that sometimes a motorcade will be provided with a police escort. This can be as simple as the lead vehicle being a police car, no lights and siren, but just leading the motorcade. Nice to have that presence and an armed law enforcement officer with a radio that could assist with any traffic or problem along the route. We once had a police escort in St. Petersburg Russia for a 3-hour private tour of museums (on a Monday when they are closed).
I once organized a motorcade for several Chief Security Officers (CSO) for several large corporations that were attending a CSO conference in El Paso, to tour numerous manufacturing plants in Juarez Mexico, and the Chief provided a police escort for us, which was greatly appreciated. This was after the bloody violence had subsided, but it was comforting to have their help. With another Principal, we did get an NYPD escort from the Tribeca Film Festival during rush hour to the Dave Letterman show (all arranged and approved by the brass). That did make the news, but it was all good (phew!).
Probably the most exciting police escort was a 21 police escort in Indianapolis from the airport to downtown. The Police Chaplain arranged the Police Reserves for the escort, and with 21 vehicles they were leap frogging to intersections ahead to block them off and the motorcade was traveling about 70 miles an hour. We made it from the airport to downtown in record time. When did convey to the Principal while that was amazing please do not expect it ever again! I am not sure how that one could be topped!
One technique I used often was to have the lead vehicle shot ahead of the main vehicle just before arrival, so that we could verify all was good, and get ready for the arrival. We would have the main car drive normally or slightly slower for a smooth arrival. Depending on the size of the motorcade and the arrival location, it is not always possible to have all the cars arrive curbside, but we will try to make a space for the main vehicle for arrival.
It was not unusual to have “Murphy” show up sometime during a motorcade. I believe most everyone here knows Murphy but in case you do not, Murphy can be a truck driver who pulls into your coned off arrival spot just before the motorcade arrives. Or a taxi driver with a fare with lots of luggage, and then they are going to stand there and argue about the fare. The best laid plans do not always work flawlessly. Someone will probably come along and try (unbeknownst to them), throw a wrench into your plan. What I have learned is you have to be flexible, expect Murphy, and then deal with it. It’s usually not the end of the world; a minor hiccup in your plan, but a normal life activity.
In case there is someone not familiar with SNAFU, “Situation Normal, all F’d up”. Sometimes, things can fall apart. A perfectly planned motorcade can fail. As long as no one dies, they are usually things we can survive from. Generally, the Principal will be unaware that your perfectly planned motorcade plan did not work as planned.
One example of this happened to me in New Delhi, where there are numerous traffic circles. Did I mention “numerous”? A perfectly arranged motorcade leaves the plane all together; what a gorgeous sight! Amazing. Beautiful. Until we get to the first traffic circle, and the local drivers all seem to have their own way back to the hotel, even though they were instructed to stay together, and they did just that on two practice runs. I think it was a race as to who could get back to the hotel first!
The Main vehicle arrived first, and the lead vehicle came in second. We had a security team waiting and everything came together with no real problem. It does get your heart racing and it bothers you, but you must shake it off and move on. Especially if the principal did not notice. On occasion a motorcade can get off track and head down the wrong street into a dead end. Oops! Quite a site seeing 8 cars have to turn around and get back into proper position. Mistakes can happen and its part of life, and you just have to deal with it and move forward.
Many protectors or Protection Drivers may go their entire career and not be involved with a multiple car motorcade. It is generally not a normal daily occurrence, but should you have the opportunity to experience one, hopefully some of what I shared will help. On the private side, you can only do your best with keeping all the cars together in traffic. With some planning, if separated, you can usually get back together for arrival. It can be quite an accomplishment to organize and arrange a motorcade and have it all come together well. Cheers!
Training website – Executive Protection Institute
Company Website – IPG