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Mark Rivera, Customer Retention Manager and CJIS Security Compliance Officer with Vigilant Solutions, served for sixteen years with the Maryland State Police, retiring at the rank of First Sergeant with thirteen of those years at the supervisory and command level. He holds a Master of Science Degree in Management from The Johns Hopkins University and Secret clearance through the FBI, Baltimore.

Cover Story

Responding to School Sieges

September 01, 2006  |  by John Giduck

Take It With You

The following are some guidelines on essential tools law enforcement should have at the ready during a terrorist hostage siege.

Ammo: Bring as much ammunition as possible. Once the battle is on, you cannot afford to withdraw, or worse, get killed, for lack of an ability to shoot back.

U.S. law enforcement must change its attitude and policies regarding numbers of rounds carried by officers if they are to have a chance in a real terrorist battle. Most SWAT snipers will arrive at a tactical situation with 60, 80, maybe even 100 rounds of ammunition. In a situation like Beslan, a sniper with 120 rounds would be good for no more than four minutes of actual battle. That is 30 rounds per minute to take out targets and provide covering fire for the assault teams and escaping hostages. The battle at Beslan went on for 11 hours, with no less than eight hours of intense fighting.

Body Armor: It goes without saying that all of your officers will have vests. If possible, body armor must be carried for hostages as well. And the armor may not be enough to protect them. If you are forced to move the hostages through fields of fire, you may have to be as brave as the men of Alpha and Vympel (Russian special forces) at Beslan, covering the running forms of the hostages with your own bodies, taking the bullets meant for the innocents.

Flashbangs: Notwithstanding the Russian perspective on their use, noise distraction devices can be very valuable. In America, where narcotic gas is unlikely to be available, flashbang grenades may be the next best thing.

Communications: Communications must be compatible with all responding agencies. Before a building is stormed, this must be checked and re-checked. Do not allow your jurisdiction to suffer from a communications deficiency. Even if it means doing nothing more than going to Radio Shack to purchase cheap multiple unit systems that can be shared in a crisis, do it now.

Restraints: You may take prisoners. If that happens, you'll need flex cuffs. Make sure they are pre-threaded, with the tongues inserted through the locking eyes. Trying to lace these through in the heat of battle when adrenaline is raging through your system is next to impossible.

Night Vision Equipment: Every operator should have a night optical device at all times. Just because it is 5 a.m. when you launch your assault does not mean you won't need night vision. And make sure that your night vision equipment is ready and with you at all times. If electricity has been shut off inside, you may find yourself in the dark recesses of a building, in rooms with no windows or a school basement. You can bet the terrorists will have night vision capability. So should you.

Gloves: If explosives are detonated, there will be large pieces of the building, splintered furniture, and twisted metal and rebar that will have to be negotiated, bent, or moved. Some items may be burning hot to the touch. You may also have to punch through a window, bend fencing, or tear out an obstructing metal window frame.

First-Aid Kits: Everyone should have them as part of their tactical gear, secured to their tactical vests or harnesses. Super Glue can quickly close any wound that requires stitches. Tampons are the single best item for stemming blood flow from deep wounds. Small needle nose pliers are not only useful as a mechanical tool in an emergency, but can serve as clamps for uncontrollable bleeding to major arteries when hemostats are unavailable or already in use. In such circumstances, don't worry about germs. If the person lives the doctors can deal with the infection later.

Footwear: Everyone should have on good tactical or combat boots, with the laces tucked in.

At Beslan, when I first entered the school, I could barely negotiate it. The school was a warren of twisted wreckage, boulders of building material, and blown out floors. Moving through it was like leaping from one unsteady, slippery rock in the middle of a rushing stream to the next.

In the U.S., I have worked with enough SWAT teams to recognize that most have not been conditioned to completely secure their laces. In Beslan, you could not have moved 15 feet in any direction without snagging exposed laces on something and falling flat on your face, maybe onto a booby trap. Double knot your boot laces, twist and tuck them in tight, then wind electrical tape around to secure them Water-Combat is exhausting. You will need water and lots of it. Remember, once inside you will not be coming out for a rest. It could be 10 hours or more. You must have water to allow you to remain an effective fighting tool. And even if you don't need it, the hostages you save will.

The Non-Lethal Option

When Muslim terrorists seized nearly a thousand hostages at the Nord-Ost Theater in Moscow, Russian special forces tried to end the siege by pumping knockout gas into the theater.

In many ways, this audacious plan worked. All 42 terrorists were killed in the subsequent assault by Russian tactical teams and many hostages were rescued. Unfortunately, the plan was not thought through as well as it should have been. Medical personnel was not on hand to tend to the hostages, and 129 of them were killed by the effects of the gas. One died from gunshot wounds received during the assault.

Though a generally revolting notion to Americans culturally, we may have reached the point where the federal government and law enforcement weapons manufacturers must start working on developing gas that can be used effectively in hostage situations.

After 9/11 a proposal was made that all commercial aircraft be outfitted with sleep-inducing gas capability through the air conditioning systems. In the event of an attempted hijacking, the use of gas would put everyone outside of the cockpit to sleep. This met with strong-even outraged-opposition. Obviously, the death toll and infrastructure damage we suffered on Sept. 11, 2001, were insufficient to budge the sensibilities of Americans in confronting certain tactics, no matter how effective.

The Russians have accurately pointed out a number of reasons why the use of gas cannot hurt a situation, merely help it or be of no consequence. Perhaps it is time we gave it due consideration.

At the Nord-Ost Theater the Russians employed what is believed to be a fentanyl-based agent some have referred to as M-99. While fentanyl or other currently existing agents may be too powerful and potentially lethal, milder sleeping substances can certainly be developed for tactical use.

You have a growing arsenal of non-lethal weapons, including impact rounds, Tasers, OC gases, and many more now in development. Even the Defense Department has gotten involved in non-lethal weapon development, engaging in research into laser and microwave weapons whose heat delivery can neutralize an enemy due to the excruciating pain that is created, even from ranges of hundreds of meters. Such weapons may prove to be our best options for ending sieges by hardcore terrorists. Consequently, the development of these weapons is critical and should be funded now.

In the meantime, your goal in your assault is to save as many hostages as possible. If you can do that by killing the terrorists, do it. If you can do it by capturing the terrorists, then do it. The only thing that really matters is saving the innocent.

This article was excerpted from "Terror at Beslan" by John Giduck. Long a student of Russian culture and language, Giduck is president of Archangel, a Colorado-based consultancy that trains U.S. law enforcement and military in anti-terrorism tactics.

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