Surviving a Hostage Situation in a Classroom Environment

Andrew Taylor, Mississippi IHL Safety and Loss Control

After participating in a teleconference hosted by the University Risk and Insurance Managers' Association, presented by The Safe Travel Institute and according to information provided by The National Hostage Survival Training Center, I came away with these basic tenets:

Hostage situations can generally be described in two basic ways. One is the traditional hostage-taker, who tries to utilize hostages as leverage to negotiate something else. The other, which is becoming more prevalent, is the hostage taker bent on death and destruction to "make a statement" or with no other goal in mind. As a situation develops, a potential hostage needs to immediately assess the intruder's intent—negotiation or murder.

Hostage situations generally go through three phases. Recognizing the phases and knowing what to do in each is fundamental to surviving the situation.

  1. Capture Phase: The most dangerous phase in which the intruder is trying to take control. Victims need to assess intruder's intent rapidly, avoid attention, stay low. If intent appears to be detaining people and/or controlling a facility for negotiation purposes, you will most likely move through phases two and three. If however, the intruder is actively shooting or using a weapon to kill, immediate action is recommended and there are two basic options for the potential victim:

    Get Out—meaning to escape any way possible, through doors or windows and run until safe.

    Take Out—meaning to disarm and disable the intruder as quickly as possible with as much force as needed. Consider the number of people on your side versus a lone gunman (i.e. 9/11 flight 93). Don't allow an opportunity for multiple shots and reloading by hiding or playing dead.

  2. Internment Phase: Assuming we're dealing with someone intent on negotiating for what they really want, an internment period will follow. This may last a few hours or a few days or weeks. This is the time when negotiations are taking place. This is the time to do some planning for various contingencies. This is also when hostages should employ the "3 C's".

    Calm—staying as calm as you can will keep the hostage taker calm. When hostages panic, hostage takers panic and the situation can escalate beyond their original intentions. Hostages can appear calm by following directions and avoiding sensitive topics in any conversation with the hostage taker.

    Connect—by appearing to empathize (not sympathize) with your captor, you will become a person to them rather than a brokering chip. In some cases, by creating a bond, hostages have reversed the Stockholm Syndrome such that captors became unwilling to harm their captives. This is also when you can buy time by slowing things down. Encourage the negotiation process and keep the focus on outside contact.

    Capitalize—while encouraging a negotiated release or some other peaceful conclusion, remain alert to rescue efforts and escape opportunities.

  3. Resolution Phase: Research indicates that 80% of all hostages worldwide survive their ordeal one way or another. Resolutions are typically characterized by one of three options:

    Negotiated Release—the safest and sometimes longest outcome requiring patience and calmness on everyone's part.

    Rescue—success depends on the rescuer's ability to distinguish between the hostages and the hostage taker. Cooperation of the hostages is critical. Avoid being misconstrued as the criminal element by avoiding threatening posture, do not grab and hold on to the weapon, make sure the rescuers can see your empty hands (sometimes the good guys have to put their hands up, i.e. Columbine). If unsure what to do, stay low until instructed as to procedure.

    Escape—most risky resolution. If an opportunity presents itself and the risk of not escaping is greater, take it. Recognize that you are betting with your life.

If, at any time, your hostage taker develops into a shooter (killer), then refer back to "Get Out or Take Out".