Cell Phones and Hostage Situations

I haven’t read this book on the Columbine school shooting and massacre, but the New York Times review had an interesting paragraph about cell phones in a hostage situation:

Fuselier is one of the people Cullen spotlights in his retelling in order to clear up the historical record. Some of the confusion generated by Columbine was inevitable: Harris and Klebold started out wearing trench coats, for instance, but at some point removed them, giving the illusion that they were four people rather than two. The homemade pipe bombs they were tossing in all directions—down stairwells, onto the roof—only seemed to further the impression that there were more of them. And then there were the SWAT teams: students trapped inside the building would hear their rifle fire, assume it was the killers and report it to the media by cellphone, complicating the cops’ efforts to keep them safe. “This was the first major hostage standoff of the cellphone age,” Cullen notes. The police “had never seen anything like it.”

Posted on April 27, 2009 at 6:57 AM33 Comments


Mike B April 27, 2009 7:22 AM

The FBI needs to being in the Numb3rs guy to do one of those “thought models” to quickly analyze the cell phone data points and determine what is real and what are shadows, reflection and duplication.

Do I see an business opportunity for the Bruce Schneier Threat Analysis and Hostage Rescue Team?

Bruce Wayne April 27, 2009 7:35 AM

Anyone who has seen “The Dark Knight” knows that cell phones can be turned into a distributed sonar array.

Clive Robinson April 27, 2009 9:00 AM

@ Bruce,

“This was the first major hostage standoff of the cellphone age,” Cullen notes. The police “had never seen anything like it.”

Well times have moved on and now we are all “atwiiter” with these problems…

On another note in the UK the Gov has anounced that it’s decided not to have a central database of detailed Internet records.

Instead it has decided that ISP’s and employers etc must keep the records…

The official reason given is that “the people do not trust the Gov with such a database”.

My guessing is the real reason is they do not have the money so are making other people do the work at their own expense on fear of criminal prosecution and imprisonment…

ac- April 27, 2009 10:40 AM

@wiredog “I think it should be the Schneier Hostage Incident Team.”
Ooooo you wascally wabbit.

Al Macintyre April 27, 2009 11:56 AM

Police response to similar incidents will need to have GPS of cell phone informant, so they can have electronic equivalent of map pin … this person heard or observed what when from what position, so they can triangulate multiple reports of same event & coordinate that with what the police already knew about.

Also, if the informant says I am in room 12345 on floor X, with 15 other people, and we have barricaded the door, the police map e-pin now has a fix on where room 12345 is located, just in case they do not have a most up-to-date map of the facility.

pc- April 27, 2009 1:50 PM

@wiredog “I think it should be the Schneier Hostage Incident Team.”

Schneier Hostage Incident Team Stops Offenders Really Messily

David Donahue April 27, 2009 2:39 PM

Starviego, I read through the eyewitness reports at that site and assuming they are accurate recitations of the witnesses, I didn’t see anything to change my opinion.

Despite their best intentions, eyewitness testimony tends to be highly subjective and inaccurate and also changes after the fact, over time. All that site convinced me of is that there was confusion and a lot of folks making “snap” judgments and identifications in high stress conditions.

Regarding the police being able to gain useful real-time intelligence from the live information coming in from cellular callers, it’s really a hard human problem for trained Intel analysts, much less semi-prepared 911 operators.

Excited, partially panicked potential victims are notoriously bad at producing useful and non-biased intel, but often they are the only ones with the data.

I don’t even know if a general system for filtering, organizing and presenting such data in real-time could be created. I’m certain that no such system exists in the hands of local law enforcement like the Columbine PD.

Nostromo April 27, 2009 3:25 PM

@David Donahue
If you didn’t see anything in the reference given by starviego to change your opinion, then you need to open your mind a little. TPTB routinely lie to the public.

For example, read what the British police initially said about Ian Tomlinson’s death, and then watch the video on youtube. Pointers here:
You can’t dismiss video footage as “subjective and inaccurate”.
And if you think the American police are less likely to lie to the public than the British police, you’re in a dream world.

Anonymous April 27, 2009 4:00 PM

Cell-based tech is critical stuff for bat people.

Hostage situations require making hard decisions.

Clive Robinson April 27, 2009 4:10 PM

@ Davi Ottenheimer,

“monitoring data in the air these days and pinpointing source is almost more interesting than on the wire.”

From an intel point of view it always has been and will almost certainly be so in the future for various reasons.

@ Al Macintyre,

“Police response to similar incidents will need to have GPS of cell phone informant, so they can have electronic equivalent of map pin …”

For those that have not tried GPS in Built Up or Urban Areas or worse inside a building, to all intents and purposes it is useless.

The US GPS has a deliberatly built in “uncertainty of position” limiting postition fixes to at best 50m in ideal conditions using ideal equipment.

Mobile phones are very far from ideal GPS equipment and almost usless in buildings when held against a persons head.

And before somebody sugests Differential GPS to get a much more accurat fix forget it.

For Differential GPS to work you need to have very acurate timing information. The random timing uncertainty in the mobile phone protocols used to send the GPS data are sufficiently bad as to render differential GPS virtualy impossible to use in practical implementations.

So you would be better off (esspecialy with the higher band GSM phones) to triangulation on the air interface of the phone.

Fairly low cost practical systems should over 1/4KM get a fix to within 30-60 wavelengths. At 1800MHz the wavelength is ~16.5cm so you are looking at a fix to about 5meters which is about ten time better than GPS under ideal conditions…

Clive Robinson April 27, 2009 4:17 PM

@ pc-,

“Schneier Hostage Incident Team Stops Offenders Really Messily”

I’m thinking you left out “Terroristic” befor “Offenders” from your “Initial” thought…

Roboticus April 27, 2009 7:26 PM

@Clive Robinson

I may be mistaken but I am fairly certain that the deliberate errors in civilian GPS systems were turned off in 2000, with the ability to turn them back on if needed for some odd reason.

Eric April 27, 2009 8:54 PM

@Clive Robinson

“I may be mistaken but I am fairly certain that the deliberate errors in civilian GPS systems were turned off in 2000, with the ability to turn them back on if needed for some odd reason.

Posted by: Roboticus at April 27, 2009 7:26 PM”

This is correct — “Selective Availability” was turned to zero on 1 May 2000. “Zero” means it is no longer injecting random but deliberate errors into the civilian GPS signal. It could be turned up again, but I think this is HIGHLY unlikely, given the huge civilian GPS market. The military has developed other means to deny GPS to the enemy.

Freemarket April 28, 2009 1:51 AM

“Selective Availability was turned to zero on 1 May 2000…. It could be turned up again, but I think this is HIGHLY unlikely, given the huge civilian GPS market.”

You mean, given the fact that Selective Availability just ensured that the Europeans/Russians/Japanese would build a competing GPS system.

A nonny bunny April 28, 2009 5:24 AM

“And if you think the American police are less likely to lie to the public than the British police, you’re in a dream world.”

Why would they lie in this case? In the Tomlinson case the police had something to hide. And as that case bore out, it is risky to lie, because the truth may come out. Lying when there is absolutely no reason to, and at great risk to your career, doesn’t make much sense.
And just because we can’t necessarily trust the police is no reason to believe conspiracy theories instead.

pc- April 28, 2009 6:00 AM

@clive “I’m thinking you left out “Terroristic”

I did! huh. Interesting sort of blind spot…my god! I’ve gone blind. I can no longer see the terrorists!

Clive Robinson April 28, 2009 10:54 AM

@ Roboticus, Eric,

SA was first turned off during the Gulf War, simply because “military grade” GPS receivers where both two few and way to expensive.

Thus the Ground Reconasanse Units Nominaly Tactical (or GRUNTs as they are often called 😉 had to make do with “civiy kit” which had the significant problem of SA on the 1M chip signal moving them around by upto 150m which is not desirable when calling down fire on the enamy at close quaters (blue on blue is undesirable for a whole host of reasons).

The 10M chip spreading code which is used by the Mil version (and is supposed to be “secure” but I doubt it these days) which could fix to ~0.5m just had way to many problems technicaly to make it comercialy viable in anything but megga bucks Mil Kit for ships etc back then.

Times have moved on and as “Freemarket” observed various other nations / powers have developed their own systems. It has been suggested that the requirment for GPS in mobile phones was yet another “market monopolisation” tactic by vested interests in the U.S. (ie if all US phones had US GPS then manufactures would not use non US GP systems, however the legislators did not realise that the US is and probably will remain a minority market when it comes to mobile phones).

That said the US GPS is also now more than a little long in the tooth and it’s ROI not realy realised (such is the cost of first to market systems).

What made a lot of people laugh was the US anouncment of GPS III with their “thousands of times better than Galilao”. It was a typical “Lone Star State” attitude (as demo’d by GWB) and sometimes known in the UK as Big car Little *ick syndrom;)

Supposadly the European contender will (if it ever gets there with all the bells and whistles) make the current GP systems not just effectivly obsoleate but “as quaint as racing Ford model-T cars” (sounds like a 1990’s MS advert).

However the EU contender does have some advantages which is possibly why NASA have been taking a good long look into it’s use on their space bourne systems and more recently started on joint format agreements with the EU (which is actually quite sensible for both GP systems as it strengthens both).

Things are still somewhat fluid with various nations jumping on and off board with one system or another (it’s become a lot like the Open_Source-v-Closed_Source debate and we all have a reasonable idea on how that will pan out in the long run 😉

Some interesting experiments carried out by a company in Guildford Surrey UK suggest that accuracy for all GPS systems can be improved by at least another order of magnitude without changes to the “space end” and without resorting to external differential systems, which for spaced based “above constalation” recievers is of considerable interest.

Other code improvments under investigation means that if incorperated into the European system it will be getting on for a couple of orders more accuracy (on high mobility systems) than even the current US Mil GPS system, and beter than an order than GPS III all possible with (current) handheld technology.

Although why somebody would want to measure the distance between their ears via space when moving on a fast motor bike I don’t know, (but I’m sure we will end up reading about it in the Darwin awards along with JATO car stories 8)

More seriously though outside of “military uses” the most likley use for such high short term accuracy would be in some off shore industries (sea based oil exploration, wind farm development etc) where repeatable high accuracy positional information is required (also think robotic warehouse type activities in large container ports etc.

And oddly some scientific fields such as volcanology and glaciology, will benifit from much lower cost systems for a given level of accuracy.

But consumer wise the biggest benifit will (when they get around to it) be in the likes of digital recorders such as SLR and video camera’s making archival and retreival of recorded media tie up eaily with current and past events.

Oh and a few other very interesting items (to this blog readers) which are currently under development (but more of that nearer the release date 8)

Ennibod E. Home April 28, 2009 12:55 PM

Is this “A blog covering security and security technology” or not? Not one comment thus far has addressed the “security” aspects of a mass murder attack such as Columbine, focusing instead on the technology aspects.

Doesn’t the entire problem of situational intelligence boil down to giving a remote – and therefor blind – entity a picture of what is happening? The intelligence gathering/decision/action cycle takes time and the target will have moved before the action can be carried out.

To paraphrase Tip O’Neil’s famous “All politics is local”, I suggest the more germane “All security is local.”

Neither GPS nor any other location detection system will save anyone. Getting intel out to police will most likely save no one, either.

From what I recall (I haven’t read this book but I did some research on Columbine a while back), the attackers killed themselves about 15 minutes after the initial attack by one account. According to that same account, the police took about 90 minutes to clear the building. The teacher died about 45 minutes after he was shot. If he had been shot first (he was not), he could have been saved during the the 30 minutes between the killers’ suicides and his own death. He bled to death awaiting the arrival of the police.

In the case of Columbine, whoever saw someone toss a pipe bomb knows he saw the “bad guy.”

And he knew it at the time.

And he was in the best position to do something about it. If society had not decided he must be weaponless against an opponent who was armed to the teeth.

The on-site police commander (who will most likely not be “on-site” for at least 5 minutes) cannot order anything to happen as rapidly as the eye witness could do it himself.

In the more recent NU and Immigration Services Center (up state NY; did I get the name right?), the police were on scene in 2 minutes. And yet, the murdering was already finished when they entered the buildings. In the NY case, clearing the building still took 2 hours

The bottom line is that the only persons that can defend the intended victims are the intended victims – those already on site when the attack begins.

Everyone else is deployed to capture or kill the attacker, separate the corpses from the wounded and/or clean up the mess.

possible future intended victim April 28, 2009 2:56 PM

@ Ennibod

Besides the issue of gun laws, it might help if more people had basic medic training. People often don’t want to do anything because they aren’t doctors and supposedly only doctors have the necessary expertise to deal with a severely injured person.

Unfortunately, doctors are not always around, and what can happen in the first few minutes after an injury can strongly affect a person’s chance of survival.

So maybe it would help to have trainers go around to schools and workplaces teaching people not only CPR but also other basic medical skills like stopping blood loss, splinting broken bones, tourniquet it the case of poison, etc.

And maybe include basic medical kits in each room. Since if there’s a hostage situation, people aren’t likely to travel all the way through the dangerous hallway to the clinic.

Bacopa April 28, 2009 3:38 PM

Sure, A bunch of gun toting teachers and students could have ended Columbine real fast without killing that many innocent bystanders. But there are even bigger security problems with that policy, and likely more deaths would result from multiple smaller incidents.

Andrew April 28, 2009 9:48 PM

@David Donahue

I don’t even know if a general system for filtering, organizing and presenting such data in real-time could be created.

Yes. It’s called a Wiki, with some interesting database stuff on the back end to sort the timeline.

I’m certain that no such system exists in the hands of local law enforcement like the Columbine PD.

Then. Not everywhere now. But it’s something the tangos reading this blog should worry about.


Yes, you can teach a real short course on trauma survival. Hard direct pressure for bleeding control in extremities, don’t put organs back in, nothing by mouth for the casualty, cover sucking chest wounds with plastic, half-reclining in a position of comfort unless C-spine is compromised, then hold head and neck still. This buys about an hour to get the victim off the scene and in the hands of a competent surgeon.

The fastest way to make this happen is for the police to kill the shooters.


I refuse to re-fight the gun wars in Bruce’s blog. However you make a great point: your critical incident plan may not be so good for the day-to-day stuff. Not so great point: waiting for the rescuers encourages an unhealthy passivity on the part of the would-be rescued. If all the students in the library had picked up their chairs at once and rushed our loser pair, fewer deaths would have resulted.

David Donahue April 29, 2009 12:01 PM


Yes. It’s called a Wiki, with some interesting database stuff on the back end to sort the timeline.

How would user modifiable dynamic web pages help solve this problem in real-time or present the current situation?

I’m thinking that some of the requirements of this system would be:

-Initial setup is simple and very fast, being able to be setup while en-route to the scene.

-Graphical display of the current and past known states. (Perhaps Google maps image of building as backdrop?)

-Be as easy or easier to use than whatever existing method (whiteboard?) is use now (it has to make incident response easier for emergency personnel and not harder).

-Excellent security to prevent unauthorized access (hostiles, news, victims) while maintaining ease of access for users (police, officers in field, 911 operators).

-Real-time tracking of current officer locations within the scene (manual by radio report/automatic by local diff GPS)

-Real-time input of reported hostile locations, including aging of past location/reports (fading icons?).

-Easy manual changing of map objects as movement is reported.

-Coding of map information to indicate reliability/age of the source (fading colors?)

-Ability to handle multi-floor incident scenes including 3-dimensional aspects (i.e. Show that the bomb/shooter is directly overhead of team x).

-Goal locations (shot victims, key control points, points secure, etc.) should be easily flagged and prioritized.

-Users need to be easily convinced of the systems value and be willing and trained to use it in critical high-stress conditions. It must demonstrate this value in a very obvious way to officers.

-It must be inexpensive enough to be able to be in place and have trained users at local Police/fire depts and 911 departments where it would be needed most. (very inexpensive and in place in local mobile police/fire command centers).

-Ability to quickly remove status data updates from a compromised input.

-Ability to quickly remove system access from a compromised display.

-Ability to show/review planned actions to field users (replay whiteboard annotations of planned assault).

-Painfully simple to use from a field display while maintaining security to prevent that display from being compromised (2-4 digit pin for 30 secs of access, no input except display, maybe scrolling of map).

-Officer in charge should be able to focus on responding to the incident and not operating this system. It should be a useful tool to get his objectives done faster and with better intel.

-Reliable network access for input/display devices (cellular Internet w/SSL access?)

-Components should include only off the shelf equipment for ease of maintenance.

-Field components should be durable enough to handle conditions on any likely scene (water and impact resistant).

-Full logging for detailed after the fact incident reconstruction.

I was thinking that for architecture it would be cheapest to use hosted state/national servers with SSL client side cert web browsers for input and field/remote situation display (iphones?).

In the command HQ station a devoted app linked to the above, w/pen input for fast map annotations and a large status screen/display reminiscent of the diorama maps used in movie war rooms to show friendly / hostile troop movements.

Users (911 Ops, police, fire, etc.) would be assigned to very localized groups that could be quickly given access to a given incident to provide situational input and/or get status.

System setup would involve HQ login, starting a new incident, typing in the incident address, acknowledging default groups for access, adjusting the initial map with lines/annotations/floors/etc, adding in known resources/hostiles and putting them on the display. Whole process should take less time than it takes to get to the scene and be able to be done en-route.

These are very tough requirements, especially the cost, perceived value, ease of use and user buy-in ones.

Anyone else have any requirements I’ve missed?

Andrew April 29, 2009 3:31 PM


Nice spec document, thank you. Don’t agree with everything (if you don’t have CP security, you need to be establishing it, not looking at your laptop and punching in a PIN every 30 seconds) but nice work.

Go look at http://cad.chp.ca.gov/ and also RIMS at http://www.oes.ca.gov/WebPage/oeswebsite.nsf/OESBranchContentPortal?ReadForm&type=RIMS&look=Communications%20and%20Technology%20Development&Div=Response+and+Recovery&Branch=RIMS

Anyone else have any requirements I’ve missed?

Other than we’ve just written a fun 3D game?

David Donahue April 29, 2009 4:33 PM


Thanks for the positive comment and the RIMS/etc links.

I should be more clear, I was thinking of three interfaces;
-A form and graphic one for 911 Ops, primarily used for input of witness/victim reports. (Standard login once security)
– For the CP I was thinking the always-on devoted graphical app w/pen input and icons. if desired a seperate PC could have the 911 forms for local radio sourced inputs (both with standard login once security)
-The mobile app I was proposing the Pin/30 sec logout for was for iPhones held by officers away from the CP, actively deployed forward in the scene (where it might be compromised if dropped/taken).

While I imagine they would be much too busy to check it much, I thought having a remote view of the data on the CP system would be useful if there are a lot of officers and/or they had a secure moment (such as awaiting a go signal in a semi-secure forward area). If the deployed officer needed something graphical (location of something) then it’s much easier presented on a map vs. by radio.

RIMS and the CHP incident communication system look to be very good at communicating incidents of low complexity to large audiences. The system described here would only be useful if there was a large event (like Columbine or a large office fire with trapped victims) with a lot of data varying quality data to present to a small team audience. So perhaps this is more a SWAT team or multi-alarm fire incident tool that could be added to RIMS/et all.

By the way while doing research on this app i ran across this excellent summary of the issues faced by the Columbine incident command (CP) team.

Lets hope that none of us find ourselves deep in a situation like that. Even the system above would be challenged to coordinate something like that. I think that communications problems and data centralization from diverse uncoordinated agencies unused to working together or with this system would be the key trouble.

Running a scenario like that above but with a dozen shooters and a random highly populated location is actually a pretty good test to see if it works as designed. I’m sure the Alpha test would be very exciting to do. Heck, the military could probably use a system like this too (some of the ideas came from public articles I read about the US military’s revised Land Warrior system).

Ennibod E. Home April 29, 2009 5:52 PM

@Andrew, David Donahue –
“The fastest way to make this happen is for the police to kill the shooters.”
No. The fastest way is for someone on site when the attack is initiated to “kill the shooters” by whatever means are at hand.

Your application spec is very nice, but as I pointed out both in the Northwestern University and the Binghamton, N.Y Immigration Services Center cases, police were on site in about 2 minutes. The application you specified has be setup, populated with data and everyone needs to be connected and up *to speed in less than that much time.

Sadly, you probably still are too late as the gunmen in those cases killed the intended victims as well as several people who just happened to be there at the time and themselves in about that much time.

Nice game idea, though.

@possible future intended victim –
We were taught the “Civil Defense” first aid course when I was in 8th grade. It covered various injury situations including bullet wounds, radiation exposure and delivering babies among others. I don’t think I would want to give emergency medical assistance based on a course I took over 40 years ago. Some help is probably better than none but not necessarily…

At the time of the Columbine shootings, the doomed teacher’s students were said to have preserved his life in a competent fashion. He still died during the time the police were plodding along after the killers committed suicide…

Your characterization of the Columbine shooting as a “hostage situation” is exactly the mistake made by the authorities. It was never a hostage situation and would only become one if their plan to demand an airplane could be executed. It wasn’t.

It was a mass murder situation from the planning through the execution. Negotiators are useless because there is nothing to negotiate. Establishing a perimeter and executing a plodding assault from the outside only gives the killer(s) more time to do what they came for. That response fails.

@Bacopa – Andrew was correct; if the students in the library had rushed the shooters en masse, they may have saved themselves.

The mindset to protect yourself is the first requirement for that sort of action. As pointed out by someone, training people to rely on someone else for protection breeds passivity.

@ no one in particular –
Gadgets are not the answer though they can be part of the answer if they are the proper gadgets.

What is required is an honest assessment of the problem followed by formulation of a plan that addresses the issues discovered during the assessment. The staff of target locations need frequent drills in the execution of the plan.

Running into the classrooms and locking the doors, the published plan where I live, simply locks the rabbits into handy packets of roughly class size that the wolves can attack one packet at a time while the police set up a perimeter and try to start negotiations…

I don’t want to fight the “gun wars” here, either, and I never mentioned arming anyone in the school. I did point out that society requires a victim-turned-defender to effectively confront an armed assailant unarmed. Or with a fire axe or the stream from a fire hose or…

There are other ideas, particularly if you look at schools. How about evacuation ladders stowed by the windows in the classrooms? No guns, just egress. Hopefully, getting everyone out will take less time than it takes the killer(s) to get into this room.

I am sure there are other ideas, many much better than any of mine. Why don’t we ever hear any?

Andrew April 29, 2009 7:11 PM


ICS is the coordination system for incidents. NIMS is the coordination system for large incidents. These systems are bulletproof for events ranging from car accidents up to and including mass complex wildfires, Presidential inaugurations and other extremely large special security events with timelines of a week or more.

Software tools like RIMS complement ICS and NIMS; they don’t replace it. You can run ICS with clipboards and NIMS with not much more.

What we’ve spec’d is something a little different – instead of an intelligence dissemination tool, an intelligence GATHERING tool for real-time operations. Thus the use for SWAT and occupied building fires.


Andrew said: “The fastest way to make this happen is for the police to kill the shooters.”
Home said: “No. The fastest way is for someone on site when the attack is initiated to ‘kill the shooters’ by whatever means are at hand.”

Let me unpack this a bit. The scene is closed to medics until the police declare the scene secure. (Exception: Tactical EMS, but they are under police control anyway.) The only way for the police to declare scene secure is to handcuff the corpses. Only after this is done will the medics be allowed access to stabilize and transport.

Presumably the police are too busy trying to control the scene to drag-and-drop the victims to a safer location. However they are never too busy to point fingers and/or guns at firefighters, medics and bystanders; in the name of scene control of course.

Let’s say that an armed citizen neutralized the shooter. The next event in the timeline is police officers arresting the “good guy” at gunpoint, cuffing the downed shooter and doing a hasty search. Only then will the medics be permitted to access the scene.

(All concealed weapons permit holders know this, by the way — that the police will treat them as a criminal suspect until things are secured. Think of it as a tolerable false positive.)

So until the police gain what they think is scene control, the wounded will wait for ALS stabilization and transport. If this means two hours while they search for bombs, additional shooters or for that matter the contact that fell out of the chief’s left eye . . . too bad.

XYZ April 30, 2009 8:42 AM

@Andrew and Ennibod

The policy that uniformed EMS is not allowed on the scene until “released” by the police is a recipe for ongoing loss of life at every big scene. Simply reverse this policy to allow and train the uniformed EMS people to work in the middle of a high risk scene (they risk their lives at fires anyway, so the risk of EMS people becoming victims is usually acceptable).

To reduce the risk of attackers shooting at EMS people because they look like cops, the following policies should be adapted from the Geneva rules of war:

  1. EMS uniforms look nothing like police/army uniforms. Bright orange/yellow/white with red cross markers on all sides.

  2. Police/army is banned from disguising themselves as EMS personel, hiding in ambulances etc., thus assuring the enemy that they can trust the EMS people not to fight them.

  3. EMS personnel is obliged to help the bad guys on equal terms with any other wounded person and to not report anything back to the police or courts. Thus giving the bad guys a direct incentive to let the EMS people get close and increasing the survival rate of gunshot victims in Bad-on-Bad shootouts.

Andrew April 30, 2009 5:14 PM


“The policy that uniformed EMS is not allowed on the scene until “released” by the police is a recipe for ongoing loss of life at every big scene.”

True. Dead medics help no one, however, and trained medics and their ambulances are vital to saving lives in the aftermath of an incident. Worse than that: a downed emergency services worker will usually tie up more medics, resources, etc. than a downed civilian.

.. to allow and train the uniformed EMS people to work in the middle of a high risk scene . . .

This is Tactical EMS, the idea that we should train and equip medics to work in the hot zone. These medics wear black uniforms and heavy body armor, carry handguns, and operate as part of SWAT and under the direction of the SWAT team commander / Incident Command to provide immediate EMS support to downed SWAT officers first, hostages second, and downed shooters a distant fourth. They are then indistinguishable from police, both in mission and in operational control.

Another post-Columbine innovation, I might add.

. . .from the Geneva rules of war:

Neither active shooters nor terrorists follow Geneva protocols. Otherwise they would not be murdering unarmed people and planting bombs.

  1. EMS uniforms .. Bright orange/yellow/white with red cross markers on all sides.

The EMS people have a sigil, the Star of Life, which is prominently displayed on everything. (Red Cross whines when you use their copyrighted icon off the battlefield.) Typical is blue jumpsuits with reflectorized markings and a large label on the back “EMT” “PARAMEDIC” etc. Some areas use badges to show an EMT’s authority and immunity from interference and assault — as with firefighters not in turnout gear, this can cause confusion with police.

  1. Police/army is banned from disguising themselves as EMS personel, hiding in ambulances etc., thus assuring the enemy that they can trust the EMS people not to fight them.

Due to the close cooperation between police, fire and EMS, few people on the street really believe this to be true. There is considerable ignorance on the difference, especially among the poor and the criminal population. Mandatory reporting laws which make fire and medics the tools of law enforcement, especially in domestic violence situations, also increase the risks for EMS providers.

Army hiding in ambulances IS a violation of the laws of war justifying reprisal. I am not aware of any undercover operations by police which have used EMS as a cover; this sort of false-flagging is ethically sketchy and a one trick pony at best.

  1. EMS personnel is obliged to help the bad guys on equal terms with any other wounded person

No. Simply not going to happen. If a wounded bad guy wants to be treated, he can throw down arms and surrender peacefully without incident. He is not a privileged combatant, he is a criminal and therefore enemy of society.

Even on the battlefield, where there is a formal expectation that EPWs and your own soldiers will be treated in lifesaving order, the EPW must lay down arms to gain this protection or clearly be hors de combat and therefore helpless.

A downed shooter must be controlled before EMS can approach to treat. Even then, the priority is lifesaving as above: 1st, 2nd, 4th. A downed shooter may be carrying grenades, IEDs or a concealed firearm or knife to take one last person down with them.

increasing the survival rate of gunshot victims in Bad-on-Bad shootouts.

Ordinary criminals would never, ever shoot at firefighters or EMS personnel. A junkie might break into an ambulance to steal drugs, or a really motivated angry crowd might try to flip over a fire truck during a riot, but that’s about it.

For one thing, the criminals are vaguely aware that the medics will try to save their lives too — in fact, there’s a feeling of entitlement which is amazing to see in action. Second, injuring a firefighter or medic is a really great way to get the *@&!$# beaten out of you in a brightly lit alley with dozens of cops and firefighters and medics watching who will say nothing, then or later. It’s not right or legal, it’s just how things are done.

Active shooters are not criminals in the strictest sense. They’re severely mentally ill and few of them survive to capture, many killing themselves to avoid this.

A meta-point: evil exists, and there are deranged people out there in every walk of life who will hurt people and break things for personal gain, or merely because they can. The security profession is about trying to prevent and mitigate these losses. The emergency services are about maintaining and restoring order in society — while they can save lives, and do, their function is not strictly lifesaving but public order.

Ennibod E. Home April 30, 2009 5:15 PM

@David Donahue
I read the article you linked. Apparently the school’s Resource Officer reported being fired upon at about 1126. Within 4 minutes, six deputies were on scene. The SWAT commander arrived on scene in about 10 minutes, averaging nearly 80 MPH for the 13 mile drive. He arrived amazingly quickly considering the distance and the fact that an unknown part of that distance was through (sub)urban streets and traffic.

That serves to make my point.

All this help, impressive though it was in scope and speed of arrival, was too late. The killing was already done – or nearly so – before the perimeter was established.

Those on the scene at the onset who cannot immediately flee (the most prudent course) must defend themselves in any way they can; help will almost certainly be too late. An effective plan, frequent drills of that plan (for the staff, at least) and the will to survive are required. Enforced passivity is potentially a death sentence.

With “Bad-on-Bad shootouts” I would agree completely. With incidents that have been planned as mass-murders, putting the EMS folks in harm’s way may just provide the murderers with an easy way to boost their body count.

Here, we all have the benefit of “20/20 hindsight” and we still disagree on the problem as well as the solution. Figuring it all out from second or third had information in the noise and confusion at the scene would be very difficult.

Bacopa May 2, 2009 1:36 AM

Andrew: I don’t want to fight any gun wars either. Still, I think a policy of allowing some some teachers and even students to be armed would be a huge mistake. Imagine the level of opression if the biggest A-hole coach had a gun? Imagine if the best-connected popular bullies had guns?

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