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.
“The firefighters had some sort of plan that they were going to do something, even if it meant sacrificing one of them, if it ever got to that point,” Wells said.
As it became more apparent a peaceful resolution wasn’t going to happen, police detonated four pounds of plastic explosives at the wall where the man lie in bed. The blast knocked the bed over, sending the man flying and dumping the bed on top of him, Wells said.
SWAT team members moved in, located the suspect, shot and killed him, getting all four remaining hostage out in dramatic video footage from the outside of the building that he showed the people who attended his class. One police officer was shot in his lower left arm that required extensive surgery, but he has returned to full duty, Wells reported.
Some lessons learned and advise Wells shared with the audience include the need for everyone to stay calm, including the hostages in the building. One of the firefighters who was taken hostage was a former county deputy sheriff and his police training went a long way to keep the situation under control.
Wells also said his department called in mutual aid and off-duty staff to help beef up the department’s responses and continue to answer the additional calls including two working fires that happened during the four hour 48 minute standoff.
“As much as we wanted focus all of our resources on the situation, we couldn’t ignore the rest of the county,” Wells said.
Additionally, Wells kept the family in the loop from the moment it was clear that the incident was not going to be resolved in minutes with the man suddenly coming to his senses and releasing the hostages.
“It was clear he had planned it for months and he was going to go ahead with it,” Wells said.
Wells said media, not only local, but national and international quickly caught on to the story and he needed to keep it under control for the safety of his firefighters and respond to questions.
After the situation had been resolved, there was intense media interest in talking to the firefighter hostages, Wells said, noting that he and his team decided to hold one press conference with all the firefighters and open it to everyone with an interest. It proved easier than trying to honor dozens of requests.
There was a time, however, to cut off all interviews and coverage. He said each time the subject was brought up it was like “scratching a scab off” a wound for one of the firefighters and the healing would have to start anew.
“We are saying no more interviews, at all,” Wells said. “People need to move on.”
Wells said because they expected the worse, two ambulances were stationed right at the scene, the route to the hospital was mapped out and officers were stationed to make sure it was clear if needed, Wells said.
The local trauma center was put on alert and opened and staffed four emergency operating rooms, just in case, he added.
“About the only thing we didn’t think of is if he had set the building on fire, we didn’t have enough staff to handle it,” Wells said, noting that another engine and additional personnel were deployed to the scene, but it likely wasn’t going to be enough to handle a conflagration.
Wells said the after action review was made available to all employees and those who needed to see it and the lessons from that terrible incident are being shared with everyone interested.
And lastly, Wells said he is pleased his department and county leaders stepped up and offered all the support the hostages needed including critical stress debriefing to the firefighters and any individual family members who might need the help.
“My commissioners said ‘whatever they need, you take care of it,’” Wells said.
While no department can prepare for all eventualities, especially one as out of the box as hostages taken at a routine med call, there is one thing that really made a difference, Wells said.
“Everyone remained calm,” he said. “…We take a lot of pride in our employees and everyone did what they needed to do that day.”