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How rescuers turned hostages helped free themselves

Firefighters who were held at gunpoint in Georgia set the tone for their own survival

The five Georgia firefighters taken hostage following a phony medical call now like to see patients’ hands when they respond.

If they’re covered by sheets, firefighter Tim Hollingsworth will ask the patient to pull the sheets down. If someone at the door were to refuse to show their hands, he would not go into the house.

“Someone who really needs help isn’t going to argue,” Hollingsworth said.

A heightened situational awareness has been the biggest takeaway from a four-hour ordeal inside the home of 55-year-old Lauren Brown, who called 911 on April 10 for chest pains and then pulled a gun on responders as they were taking his blood pressure.

The firefighters have been praised for their calm demeanor and expert handling of the hostage situation.

Brown told the firefighters he targeted them because he knew they would be unarmed. He was having financial trouble and wanted his cable and power to be turned back on — demands Hollingsworth was able to radio to dispatch, thereby alerting officials.

“He wanted us to text our families; he wanted everyone to know what was going on,” Hollingsworth said. They had unmonitored access to their cell phones, and he believes Brown didn’t expect them to exchange text messages with each other.

“That,” he said, “was his downfall.”

Staying calm under pressure
“The first 15 minutes and the last 15 minutes were the worst,” said Chip Echols, fellow firefighter and hostage.

There were no signs that this was anything more than a routine medical call. They entered the home and Brown was lying in a bed on his bedroom. Two or three minutes into the assessment, he took off the blood pressure cuff and said, “I hate to do this, but now for the real reason why you’re here.”

“I think we all stood kind of shocked and stiff for a half minute,” Hollingsworth said. “It was kind of euphoric in the beginning; like a slow dream. You’re trying to digest everything while your heart is racing.”

Hollingsworth, who was in charge, drew from his experience calming inmates while working in a jail. He figured as long as they didn’t get emotional or scared, things wouldn’t spiral out of control.

In the After Action Report and Improvement plan, the Walnut Grove department wrote:

“As the incident continued, the firefighters were able to gain the suspect’s trust. They attempted to keep the mood light which kept the suspect at ease. Simple acts of making coffee and staying light hearted kept the suspect calm. The firefighters kept their movements / actions deliberate and methodical. To keep from alarming the suspect, three of the firefighters remained in his presence at all times.

“While negotiations continued, the firefighters would attempt to talk the suspect down, get him to understand they were all on the same team and would do whatever they could to help him. These actions bought everyone time.”

About 10 minutes in, Brown wanted their fire engine moved so he could have an unobstructed view of the street. Hollingsworth turned to the youngest member, rookie Jason Schuon, for the job.

“He didn’t want to leave his crew, so he made the comment he couldn’t drive it,” Hollingsworth said. Firefighter Jody Moss was the closest to the door. He left, moved the truck, and assisted the SWAT team that had assembled outside.

Waiting for a ‘surprise’
The responders inside were trying to get their bearings as they attempted to lighten the mood. Brown told them he had been planning the hostage situation for four to six weeks, and they made the joke that he must not have planned very well because he “didn’t have a pot of coffee ready.”

“Nobody wanted any coffee, but we wanted to get out of the room and into other parts of the house,” Hollingsworth said.

The last hostage, Sidney Garner, remained at the right-hand side of Brown’s bed the whole time, where he was able to see a plastic bag full of zip-ties and rope on the floor in front of the nightstand. They believe he planned to tie them up, set the house on fire and then commit suicide.

Brown’s movements seemed calculated, and the firefighters never made a reach for his gun because they were afraid he was sitting on a trigger for an explosive.

“He kept talking about a surprise,” Hollingsworth said. “The only thing we knew for sure was he wasn’t getting out of the bed.”

But they were prepared to take action if they needed to.

“If it came down to it, we determined if we had to do it, it was going to be done,” Garner said.

Watching for phase two
Brown was also incredibly focused on getting his cable back on. Every time he turned on the television, Garner would discreetly reset the cable box so it was constantly loading.

“I personally think he wanted to see it on TV,” Hollingsworth said. “We kind of felt like phase one was being able to see it and watch it. Quite frankly, we were afraid of phase two.”

Outside, the police, firefighters, media, a SWAT team and hostage negotiators had gathered around the house.

Once Brown’s cell service was turned back on, the negotiators spoke to him over the phone. At one point, firefighters saw a small drone camera inside the house.

“Mr. Brown kept telling us he felt sorry for the negotiator, and the negotiator was going to have to live with what happened this day,” Hollingsworth said. He called him the middle man.

“I said, ‘I thought I was the middleman,’” Hollingsworth said. “I personally thought it made his intentions clear.”

Hitting the floor
Brown also kept saying, “You’re not going to believe what’s going to happen next.” Hollingsworth started guessing, asking him questions like “Are you going to go to the airport and fly out?”

He outlined the conversation in a text message to the flagging chief, and the negotiators must have picked up on something because authorities determined the hostages were in “immediate danger.”

Soon, Schuon saw a SWAT officer out of the corner of his eye, and sent a text to Hollingsworth.

“That’s when the coffee really came into play,” Hollingsworth said. He went to get another cup, and the SWAT officer told him the house was surrounded and that once it starts to get down.

The firefighters exchanged glances and tried to signal to each other that something was about to happen.

“Toward the end we were able to get into a position of least vulnerability,” Hollingsworth said. Brown had requested fast food for him and his hostages, and a SWAT officer entered the house carrying a tray. Other SWAT members set off a stun blast to distract Brown.

The firefighters heard an explosion and hit the floor. Brown opened fire on the first officer to enter the bedroom, injuring him in the left arm, but the officer returned fire, killing Brown. The firefighters sustained minor cuts and bruises.

Looking for red flags
“I don’t know if there’s a day that goes by that we don’t replay it,” Garner said.

In the aftermath, the department identified areas for improvement, such as reviewing existing radio codes, signals and “plain talk” alerts, and is researching available training that goes beyond scene safety. But it’s been difficult finding the right program.

“Each situation is going to be very unique,” Echols said. But now he finds himself looking for small signs that could be red flags, like opening the refrigerator door to make sure the power is on. Basically, it comes down to being aware and approaching situations cautiously, and remaining calm.

Echols said he wouldn’t have done anything differently.

“I don’t think I would change a thing,” he said. “Because we’re all alive.”

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