Wednesday, September 26, 2012

County trains for hostage negotiations

New phone system provides secure line for talks

Express Staff Writer

Not many remember that 1990 was the summer that Mitchel John Odiaga killed two people in Ketchum in a shooting spree. 

But Blaine County’s elite emergency response team members recall the event as the birth of S.E.R.T., the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, an outfit that could be used in a similar situation involving potentially lethal actions or a hostage crisis.

Many see the S.E.R.T. service as essential in a community that hosts high-profile events such as the annual Allen & Co. media and technology conference that includes many political, business and entertainment dignitaries. 

The team spent four days this month, the anniversary of Sept. 11, training on new equipment designed to assist with hostage negotiations. 

The four-day intensive training took place on U.S. Forest Service land north of Fairfield and utilized a new crisis-response phone system—a secure line that provides a way for hostage negotiators to speak directly with suspects at a safe distance while monitoring negotiations, rather than yelling through a megaphone. 

The equipment—designed to facilitate recordings and document incidents— is believed to substantially increase a team’s chances for a peaceful resolution to emergency situations, not only hostage scenarios, according to a Sheriff’s Department news release. 

The team trained on how to transport and set up the equipment in a remote location and keep it powered up when away from electricity from the grid, said Ed Fuller, the sheriff’s lead investigator and S.E.R.T. leader. The gear was funded through the Department of Homeland Security, he said.

The team, typically about a dozen officers from valley law enforcement agencies, trains two days a month and one week a year to work on emergency response skills.

“Their primary objective is to handle lethal-weapon situations that may threaten the lives of the citizens of Blaine County. Officer, hostage and citizen safety are absolute priorities,” said Blaine County Sheriff Gene Ramsey. 

Trainings have taken place all over the valley, with scenarios in banks, schools and private residences, Fuller said.

Most funding for S.E.R.T. comes from the county’s forfeiture fund derived from drug seizures. Homeland Security also funds the trainings with about $15,000 per year. 

Training time is part of an officer’s annual workload, Fuller said. 

“We’ve probably seen 15 different situations where we’ve had to respond to people with guns. Since and with Odiaga we’ve been able to respond successfully. All of them have been resolved without the use of force.”

Although Odiaga was armed when he was arrested, there was no further loss of life.

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