Applying Security Trainings in Real Life: How Preparing for Hostage Situations Saves Lives


One of the first lessons I learned as a young member of the rescue squad is that training saves lives. Stopping the bleeding, CPR, protection from smoke inhalation and other training we practiced saved lives every day. Later, as a police officer and special agent, that mindset was consistently reinforced in different situations, but especially during many debriefings of survivors, including victims of hostage takings.

When I started as a counterterrorism agent in the 1980s, hostage-taking and hijacking incidents out-paced our ability to prevent attacks from occurring. We studied and investigated many notorious cases, including the 1972 Black September Organization kidnapping and murders of the Israeli athletes in Munich, the 1973 kidnapping and murders of American diplomats in Khartoum, the 1976 kidnapping of American diplomats in Beirut, and the 1978 hostage-taking of Ross Perot’s EDS employees in Tehran. In some cases, the hostages escaped, like Charlie Glass of ABC News. Others died in captivity, like Bill Buckley, the CIA station-chief in Lebanon, chronicled in my book Beirut Rules.  

As I watched a clip of the captives escaping from a side door at the January 15 hostage taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, chased by the gunman, the visual reinforced the need for security training. In interviews following the incident, the survivors of this horrific ordeal say they were able to escape by using techniques and tactics they learned during security training sessions from the  Secure Community Network and Anti-Defamation League.

“Over the years, my congregation and I have participated in multiple security courses from the Colleyville Police Department, the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League, and Secure Community Network. We are alive today because of that education,” said the synagogue’s rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker in his written statement.


The Key to Preparing for Attacks

The threat of hostage taking is not limited to high risk individuals or locations. Anyone can be caught in a crisis situation while going about their daily lives — in their home, workplace, school, a store, or a house of worship. Everyone can benefit from considering the threat of these situations and understanding the best ways to respond before they’re faced with an actual attack. 

As our team debriefed numerous hostages and studied several cases, we learned that advance training, a survival and escape mindset, and preparation for these situations were the keys to surviving the attacks. We also learned that hostage taking is an unusual crime – there are many things that help victims survive as hostages, but there are few hard and fast rules.


How You Can Protect Yourself

For individuals considering these threats, first think about the places you stay most often, like your home, workplace, gym, house or worship, or any other location you visit frequently. For each of these locations:

  • Do you know all of the entrances and exits?
  • Do you know where emergency supplies are located? 

Next, consider how a potential attack could unfold and how you would respond: 

  • What is the most likely place an attacker would enter?
  • How would you escape if usual egress points are blocked?
  • What objects are present that could be used as a weapon, if it became necessary?
  • Do you carry a pocket knife or mace?    
  • Are there areas where you could hide or barricade to put space between yourself and an intruder? 

Last, consider how you would respond if you became a hostage and how the situation might unfold. These situations can often become violent, especially during rescue and escape attempts. However, it may also be possible to develop a rapport with the hostage taker and work toward resolving the situation. Consider different ways the situation could unfold and actions you could take to stay safe.  


How Organizations Can Incorporate These Learnings

In the same way individuals should have a plan of what to do if they’re taken hostage, organizations should also consider this threat as part of their larger risk management and executive protection programs. Proactively understanding the threat and training individuals to address these issues as quickly as possible can be the key to a safe outcome, with two specific areas to keep in mind:

  • An organization’s risk profile and key locations should be continually reevaluated to understand if there are circumstances that increase the likelihood of a hostage taking (or similar problems related to their operations).
  • Special attention should be paid to monitoring known threats and suspicious incidents in the close vicinity of operations and protectees, or those targeting similarly situated individuals and organizations. 

In situations where the threat is high, security managers should engage professionals to provide security training modules that can teach and train the best practices if an individual or group becomes involved in a hostage situation, including discussions of how to best secure specific locations. These issues can frequently be addressed as part of larger modules about how to respond to incidents like active shooters within facilities, emotionally disturbed persons and other similar threats. As shown in the Colleyville incident, this training can help ensure individuals are prepared to respond to threats as quickly and effectively as possible. 

On a practical level, hostage-taking is a rare occurrence, but individuals and organizations who have a plan and think about a course of action before an attack occurs have a far better chance of escaping to safety. 


See how your organization can ensure the safety of employees, vendors and visitors – anywhere with Real-Time Threat Detection.