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Real-World Lessons from Hostage Situations

Late in August 2017, on a trendy stretch of one of America’s most iconic streets—King St. in Charleston, SC—a fired dishwasher returned to the restaurant where he had worked and shot and killed a former coworker. Announcing, “There’s a new boss in town,” he took another person hostage for several hours until police shot the suspect, critically wounding him.

Active shooter events are more common, but workplace hostage situations do occur. In a recent security industry webinar, representatives from the Arapahoe County (CO) Sheriff’s Office said it’s important for an organization’s active shooter planning and training to account for the possibility of a hostage scenario. The two are closely linked, they noted. Hostage events can become active shooting incidents and, conversely, active shooting events can become hostage situations.

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Although it’s often left out of active shooter training, the officers said it’s important for company protection leaders to cover the actions employees should take in a hostage scenario. They said it’s critical to stress the distinction between the two types of events because how employees respond—and whether they remain safe—depends on it.

Trying to escape during an active shooting may be lifesaving, but during a hostage situation, it is likely to cause a situation that is typically resolved peacefully to turn deadly.

Some training points:

  • The longer the situation goes on, the better the likelihood that law enforcement will resolve it. Do not lose hope.
  • Do not speak unless spoken to; don’t argue; don’t make suggestions. Do not antagonize the hostage-taker.
  • Make eye contact unless told not to. It’s harder for a hostage-taker to hurt someone with whom they’ve made eye contact.
  • Leave if threatened and told to leave. A store manager should not insist on staying with other hostages, for example.
  • Be observant. If released, you may be able to provide law enforcement with useful information.
  • Try to remain calm. If a hostage-taker is armed with a “bomb,” keep in mind that such devices are typically designed to instill fear and are not usually capable of causing great harm and are typically not as dangerous as victims are likely to think.
  • When rescued, be aware that you may be placed in handcuffs until everyone is identified.

Real-World Lessons from Hostage Situations

From actual hostage-taking incidents, including one at Discovery Channel when a radical environmentalist, angry at its programming, took several employees hostage at its corporate offices, here are some additional actions that retailers might consider.

Conduct annual evacuation drills at main corporate offices, have a defined process for sending out timely communication with instructions on how to exit the building, and pre-assign to each floor a captain to lead emergency evacuations. A representative from Discovery Communications said its staff’s proper execution of the building evacuation plan was critical to keeping staff out of harm’s way.

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Think about how you would be able to watch and share video from inside your building. Discovery’s security team was able to make live video from internal building surveillance cameras available for police to watch during the course of the siege, information that helped law enforcement successfully conclude the incident. (The suspect was killed, and no hostage was injured.)

Keep a record of threats and assess the need to investigate. If a disgruntled customer sends a retailer a threatening note, he or she may just be blowing off steam. But it could also be a precursor to something more serious.

In the incident at Discovery Channel, company personnel were aware of the individual who took hostages at their office building. Two years prior, the man was arrested for creating a disturbance outside the building, and had been instructed by a court that he would be jailed for up to 60 days if he came within 500 feet of the building. He also had published a manifesto listing his “demands” regarding the channel’s television programming.

After the incident, a Discovery spokesman told the Washington Post that the company was “aware of him but did not take his threats seriously.” Andrew Milne, senior counsel at Garson Claxton LLC, told the Washington Business Journal that companies should maintain a record of any hateful comments by people with issues toward a company or its employees. If you don’t maintain records of such communications, it’s impossible to identify when an individual is persistent or when animosity appears to be escalating, he said.

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Provide LP and store managers with de-escalation training—it can be critically important. In a hostage event at a community hospital near Fort Stewart in Savannah, GA, staff response was vital in the peaceful resolution of a hostage crisis. Two hostage victims, a nurse practitioner and a technician, were credited with calming the gunman until professional hostage negotiators arrived.

“Working together, they maintained the situation, kept the gunman out of the territory where he could harm someone else, and bought time for someone else to get there,” Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Phillips, a senior Fort Stewart commander, told the Associated Press.

This post was originally published in 2017 and was updated September 4, 2018.

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