SAN DIEGO – Having five Georgia firefighters taken hostage at what seemed like a routine chest pain medical call is not a typical call.
And it’s certainly one Charles Wells, assistant chief of operations for Gwinnett County (Ga.) Department of Fire and Emergency Services will never forget.
Wells was one of the dozens of presenters at Firehouse World conference on Tuesday. During his presentation, he detailed the events of April 10, 2013, when five firefighters who responded to a hoax call for medical aid. Instead, the man who made the call had a detailed plan on how he was going to leverage his hostages for the restoration of utilities to his home after he did not pay the bills.
“He was a sicko who was intent on causing as much harm to as many people as he could,” Wells said.
Wells opened his presentation with the audio recording of the initial request for an ambulance. The man, Lauren Brown, complained of chest pains, and, during questioning by the emergency services dispatcher, Brown said his breathing wasn’t normal and he was cold and clammy.
He even took four low-dose aspirin at the dispatcher’s directions and chewed them while he was on the phone, as directed.
“There was nothing in that call that could have alerted anyone to what was about to happen,” Wells said.
He said an ambulance with two firefighters and an engine with three firefighters were dispatched and arrived at the man’s home. Once inside, they found a man in bed with guns who listed a number of demands, including wanting the power restored to his home the cable restored so he could watch himself on television and his cell phone reactivated.
“We work really well with all of our utilities and our police department,” Wells said.
While the situation was unfortunate, everything worked out nearly textbook toward resolution of the situation, Wells said. Even the right people with the right skills was either there or quickly deployed.
Early in the hostage taking Wells said he told one of the firefighters to move the ambulance and fire truck. The firefighter who given that assignment said that he hadn’t been cleared to drive neither the ambulance nor the fire truck, Wells said.
The hostage taker then assigned another firefighter to move the equipment. That firefighter had specialized training from the military that allowed him to give police detailed drawings of the inside of the single-family home and the location of the suspect.
“That prove to be a huge advantage,” Wells said, noting the SWAT team developed a workable plan to get the hostages out.
Another advantage was the man didn’t leave his bed, Wells said, noting that had he moved about the house, it would have made it much more difficult to resolve the incident.
The ultimate plan was to use a distraction blast on an exterior wall of the home near where the man lie in bed and then rush the house with SWAT team members, supplemented by two that had got in the house silently through an unlocked window.
Rescuers and police also had some real-time information, not only from the police officers inside, but from text messages the man allowed the firefighters to send to family and friends, Wells said.
“He never asked to see any texts they were sending, so they provided some information that proved very helpful,” Wells said.
A mobile command center was brought to the scene that was capable of intercepting all the text messages transmitted by the hostages, the chief said.
From early in the hostage negotiations, police knew Lauren Brown was bent on exacting some revenge on society and his friends and it wasn’t likely he was going to give up his hostages voluntarily and without harm, Wells said.
His last demand was to have his house boarded up, Wells said. And, while no one will ever know his final plan, the firefighters, who interacted with him for more than four hours, it appeared that he was prepared to have his hostages tie each other up with rope and zip ties he had arranged on chairs in the home, set the house on fire and then kill himself.