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Storming the bus

Our "prison" with coats/scarves hanging in front to block SWAT's view of us.

I waited seven hours to see the SWAT team storm a city bus. Unfortunately, they did it during the two minutes I was in the Command Post bathroom.

I kid you not.

That disappointment aside, my morning as a volunteer hostage was pretty interesting.

The scenario was that three men had robbed a nearby McDonald’s and when chased by the cops, one ran onto a city bus, and the other two went into a school. So, the SWAT team and negotiators had to be split, though in reality we were all on the same piece of land.

I volunteered to be in the bus, thinking I’d have a good view of what was going on. Except for the end when all the action happened—le sigh—I did.

The most surprising thing I learned was how slowly things move in a standoff. When the SWAT team is called out, this isn’t a quick thing. It takes time for them to arrive, coordinate, set up, get snipers in position, bring out a command post, get a hostage negotiator on scene, fire up the robots…

If you take a group hostage, expect to be there a while. Don’t drink too much, and be patient. Better yet, surrender.

Our "spy" with the "delivery boy" in the background

The other thing that surprised me is how much I wanted the negotiator to just give the gunman what he wanted. I also really, really didn’t want to be onboard when the SWAT team stormed the bus. Even though I know they’re good at what they do, I couldn’t help thinking the whole scene—four of us crammed in the back, three acting as shields for the guy with two handguns—could turn into a blood bath with innocent casualties.

After several hours on board, watching robots spy on us and listening to the one-sided phone conversations where demands were generally not met (either by design or miscommunication), the gunman agreed to exchange me (the “pregnant” lady who had to pee) for a throw phone, since his cell was low on battery.

I followed another hostage to the door so he could get the phone, and he let me out. He also slipped out at the same time, leaving only one hostage behind.

I expected the SWAT team to storm the bus almost immediately–which is why I didn’t take advantage of the bathroom facilities when I initially found out about them–but when they did board, it was quick.

They attached a giant hook attached to a truck to rip the door (which had been handcuffed shut) open, boarded, and took down the gunman with multiple shots. The hostage was unhurt, despite standing right next to him.

When it was all over, the SWAT team, EOD team (who provided the robots), hostage negotiators, and others involved sat through a debrief where they talked about lessons learned.

What did I learn? (Besides the fact that I never want to be a hostage for real?)

Next time volunteer to be in the school.

This hook is at least 3 feet long, and heavy.

The aftermath

Citizens Police Academy-week 9, part 1: SWAT

SWAT! Got your attention? Last week’s CPA class was a visit to the SWAT team, EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) team, and the K-9 Patrol unit. You know, the class we’d all been waiting for. 😉

We started with SWAT, which stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. In Fairfax County, the SWAT team deals with 12-15 barricades (hostage situations) each year. So what do they do with the rest of their time?

Plan for and serve high-risk warrants. SWAT serves more than 100 high-risk warrants per year, usually for narcotics investigations or anything else where the suspect is likely to be armed. Planning often takes a week or two during which the team surveils the location, learns as much about the layout of the dwelling as possible, and develops a plan.

The team usually moves in at night. If working in an interior corridor (e.g. in an apartment building), they will block the hall exits and stairs, stop the elevators, and tie off the other residents’ doors to keep them from coming into the corridor during the raid. They may even turn off the electricity or air conditioning. Since the fireproof metal doors common to apartment buildings in Virginia don’t respond well to the battering ram, the SWAT team generally breaches the entry with a shotgun or small explosive (a water bag charge).

They kick in the door, throw down a flash-bang, and swarm in to secure the home and arrest the suspect, sometimes setting up a bright light to disorient or redirect the suspect (who will usually avoid the light).

Train SWAT from other areas. Fairfax County’s SWAT team is known as a Tier 1 team (the highest level). They are also the only full-time team in Virginia. As such, they help train other teams around the State and region.

To qualify for a full-time team, the NTOA (National Tactical Officers Association) requires at least 12 members and the ability to deploy as many as 22 members for an incident. Most counties don’t have the budget for that. FCPD has 12 full-time SWAT members and 17 supplemental officers with whom they fill openings on the full-time team.

Ongoing training. The SWAT team is required to spend 25% of its non-operating time in training. They train for all types of situations, including rooftop insertion from a helicopter, shooting from a helicopter, active shooter scenarios (e.g. school, workplace), and domestic barricades. In addition, they spend up to two hours per shift keeping up their physical fitness. (And it shows!)

Dignitary protection. We’re right next to D.C., so when the President or other high-ranking political officials come into Virginia, the SWAT team (as well as the rest of the FCPD) support the Secret Service’s efforts.

The SWAT team has some pretty cool equipment. In Fairfax County, each SWAT member is given a take-home vehicle stocked with a gun safe to store their small arms, a subgun, and a longer gun (similar to an AR-15 or AK-47). In addition to firearms, the cargo space is stuffed with all the gear and equipment they need to respond to an incident.

The SWAT team is an elite unit that requires a high level of physical fitness, an ability to make good decisions quickly under high stress, and excellent shooting skills. Only a small percentage of applicants will make it. And they recently had a woman make it through. If I remember correctly, she's the first one in FCPD.

So, that's SWAT in a nutshell. In my next post, I'll cover EOD and K-9 Patrol.