9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Four Ways to End a Hostage Situation: The Telecommunicator's Role

Article taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine October 2007
Written by Bob Smith, APCO International's Director of Comm Center & 911 Services

Exactly how much involvement can a telecommunicator have in a hostage situation? The telecommunicator can have a tremendous impact by setting the foundation for subsequent negotiations and all ongoing communications with the hostage taker. The first 15-45 minutes of a hostage situation are the most critical and set the stage for incident progression. It's believed that once that first 45 minutes have passed, the chances of everyone involved surviving increase to 85%.

A majority of areas don't have full-time dedicated hostage negotiation teams (HNTs), and in many areas that do, teams require as much as 45 minutes to respond. That leaves the telecommunicator to communicate with the hostage taker during those critical initial moments. So the more training they have, the better they can do their jobs.

Hostage situations may result from an interrupted crime in which taking hostages was not the original goal of the perpetrator; taking hostages was a last-minute attempt to protect themselves when their original plan went south and they could not escape. These situations can include bank robberies, domestic incidents, warrant service, workplace or school violence and active shooter incidents, among others.

Prison riots may also result in hostage situations. These types of situations have many unique issues. Incident command will typically involve law enforcement on the local, state and, possibly, federal levels and will include non-traditional first response law enforcement personnel, such as Department of Corrections officials.

Hostage situations may also be carried out by terrorists with a specific goal in mind. Their demands may be detailed and specific and may have national or international ramifications. Because the potential exists for international-level demands and because terrorists seek the greatest possible impact, such situations may be accompanied by a great deal of local, national and international media attention.

Action Steps

Hostage situation calls may begin with a statement of demands from the hostage taker. It's important for telecommunicators to record those demands and to be ready to respond to that statement. Again, how the telecommunicator responds will set the stage for all later communications. However, telecommunicators should be cautioned against asking for demands. Demands are clues to what is motivating the hostage taker to take such drastic steps. Asking for demands up front may diminish the effectiveness of this very important intelligence-gathering tool.

Time is a critical factor in hostage situations for everyone involved. The hostage taker will express deadlines associated with their demands, the responders will have timelines for their actions, and the telecommunicator will need to be cognizant of all of these time-related factors.

In the end, there are four basic options available to end a hostage situation. Although telecommunicators likely won't be involved in the actions themselves, they should be aware of the alternatives.

Armed Assault

In an armed assault to end a hostage situation, the telecommunicator's role will be limited, but the telecommunicator may be called on to coordinate and determine the hostage taker's location prior to the assault. This is obviously a way to quickly end a potentially dangerous situation. However, it is also a high-risk option. Statistics have shown that 78% of hostages are killed in armed-assault situations. There is also an increased risk to the officers making the assault.

Selected Sniper Fire

Just like armed assaults, the telecommunicator's only role may be determining or coordinating the location of the hostage taker. These are typically worst case scenario situations in which all other attempts to rectify the situation have failed and an imminent threat to the hostages of others is present. This option does end the situation quickly and does save lives. However, there is a psychological impact on all involved--hostages, responders and telecommunicators.

Chemical Agents

Chemical agents are usually used in conjunction with armed assaults. They may also be used to distract a hostage taker when they are about to do something that responders don't want. However, there are several unpredictable elements with chemical agents.

The containers used to disperse the chemical may malfunction or not function at all; air handlers may come on at the wrong time and evacuate all the chemical from the area; or the wind may kick up at an inopportune moment and blow the chemical back onto responders. Because chemical agents are usually used in conjunction with armed assaults they may also tip the hostage takers to the fact that something is about to happen. In addition, they pose health hazards to victims.

In October 2002, after 57 hours of failed negotiations with hostage takers in a Moscow Theater, the Russian military decided to introduce a sleep agent into the ventilation system. Unfortunately, the hostages and hostage takers had severe reactions to the chemical, and 129 of the 800 hostages and 41 of 43 hostage takers were killed by the chemical.

Contain & Negotiate

This approach represents the best case scenario and is the outcome all hostage negotiators and SWAT teams strive for. A resolution in which everyone goes away unharmed. It projects a positive public image for all agencies involved and protects departments from the liability of a wrongful death lawsuit resulting from an armed assault. However, this approach is typically time consuming and labor intensive and requires the involvement of a trained hostage negotiator.

The Bottom Line

Hostage situations can be high-profile, resource-intensive operations of long duration, and telecommunicators should have at least an awareness-level familiarity with such situations, just as they should of structural firefighting and mass casualty incidents. Telecommunicators may be the first person to actually speak with the hostage taker, and their actions could set the foundation for ongoing negotiations and basically all communciations with the hostage taker. So, just like any other type of emergency situation a telecommunicator deals with, the more information and more training they receive the better they will be prepared and the better they can perform.

No comments:

Post a Comment