SWAT teams are faced with many tactical challenges — the most frequent being the barricaded gunman and the suicidal subject. Occasionally, we face the hostage situation, but seldom do we have to make a hostage crisis intervention. Even so, many times the hostage crisis remains the focal point of SWAT training. The theory goes that if you can master the hostage crisis intervention, then your response to a barricaded gunman and suicidal subject will be just as good. We have also been lead to believe that the hostage crisis is the biggest tactical challenge a SWAT team may face.
While I agree that the hostage crisis is one of the toughest tactical challenges for a SWAT team to face, a hostage crisis on a bus may be the toughest challenge any tactical team can encounter. We in law enforcement have come to know this tactical option as the bus assault. In many ways it has to be treated like a hostage rescue operation because you are dealing with a hostage crisis. Unfortunately, your team will be facing many challenges that you wouldn’t normally train for when conducting typical hostage rescue interventions in a conventional stronghold with rooms and doors.
Immobilize the Vehicle
The biggest problem is your adversary’s stronghold itself. It can quickly and easily become mobile, and unless you limit their movement your options are very limited. There are several tactics that can be used to keep a bus from moving. If feasible utilize two armored tactical vehicles to block the front and back of the bus by parking them against the bus to prevent any further movement. This is an aggressive tactic but it gives you three very valuable advantages
A.) You have prevented the bus from moving forward or back
B.) You have a close observation point — two of them actually
C.) You have a staging location and some cover for the approach
If you are limited to just one tactical vehicle, then create a ruse by having the tactical vehicle drive in front of the bus — while doing so have a tactical team approach the rear of the bus and disengage the on/off switch for the engine. Most commercial touring-type and long-range busses have some type of kill switch in the engine compartment at the rear off the bus. I encourage you to stop by your local bus yard to ask the mechanics to show you the location of these switches. Unfortunately, school busses typically have front engine compartments so you are limited in the ways you might shut down those engines.
Other tactics include cutting the brake lines to exhaust the line pressure or puncturing the gas lines or tank to drain the fuel. Keep in mind that most busses are diesel fuel so the fire risk is minimal. These two tactics are probably the most dangerous because the team tasked with the operation most likely won’t have any cover or concealment on the approach and the floor of the bus offers very little in terms of cover. Also, you are not guaranteed success by disrupting these lines so like I mentioned earlier, consider the use of two armored cars to barricade the bus.
Prepare Your Counter Snipers
Once you have the bus stopped and movement is no longer possible, counter sniper teams must be deployed. Snipers should be equipped with barrier or frangible rounds that they have trained with and collected data on for their respective weapons. Don’t task a sniper to a bus assault that hasn’t shot through glass barriers or doesn’t have the proper ammunition for the glass or headliner. I even recommend that your snipers shoot through bus headliners in training and record the data collected. Videotape the snipers shots from inside as they pass through the headliner and glass windows. This is important because if an intervention is to occur, the sniper teams will take repetitive shots into the headliner as the entry team makes their approach to keep your adversary’s head down or even on the floor.
The counter snipers’ primary objective is to gather intelligence. It’s critical that he collects information on his hostage taker(s) as well as the hostage(s). This intelligence will be crucial to the entry team if they make an intervention. The second objective for the counter sniper is threat recognition and elimination. The open-air option to neutralize the hostage takers is the preferred method over making an entry onto the bus. When possible, assign two counter snipers to each hostage taker to assure a quick, instantaneous, non-reflex kill shot.
Now that the bus is stationary and the snipers are deployed, it’s time to establish negotiations. This can be achieved through the use of cell phones, public address systems, and throw phones. Just like any other tactical operation, keep the command post away from your target location and with a little luck the negotiators can defuse the stand off.
Bus assaults require a stealth approach to provide surprise, a decisive entry with quick dominance of the bus, and dedicated tactics. The tactic must deliver an overwhelming amount of dominating force. This may make the difference between a successful or catastrophic operation.
Once the decision is made to perform a bus assault, preparation is key to the success of the operation. Here are some tactical considerations during the planning phase:
1.) The use of distractions or a ruse
2.) Entry teams approach to the target
3.) Security or containment of the scene
4.) Breaching of the door and windows
5.) Entry onto the bus
6.) Custody of hostages and hostage takers
7.) Tinted windows
8.) Access to shut off the engine
9.) Number of doors and emergency exits
10.) The use of chemical agents
One Example to Consider
The following is just a brief example of one — among several possible variations — commercial bus assault. I am sure your teams have many different styles and opinions on various tactics but this is my preferred tactic.
• The bus must be immobilized, preferably with armored vehicles barricading the bus but cutting off the power source, engine or brake lines may work.
• Counter snipers are deployed in a position to gather intelligence. Snipers must have the ability to take an open air shot if presented. Snipers must also have the ability to provide multiple shots for cover fire into the headliner of the bus if called upon. Again, these snipers must know their capabilities and limitations. If they don’t have the training or equipment then they must not be used to provide cover fire.
• The sniper teams initiate the entry team movement by shooting into the headliner of the bus, in succession during the entire approach to the bus. They continue the shots keeping the hostages and hostage takers ducking for cover or better yet they hit the floor as the entry team approaches.
• The entry team — a minimum of 10 — makes the approach to the bus on the door side of the bus, in two columns of operators shoulder to shoulder. They carry ballistic blankets if available. As they approach the back two operators will toss multiple flash bangs, in succession onto the drivers side of the bus to draw attention to the opposite side of the approach if the sniper shots fail to get their attention.
• Once alongside the bus, the cover team — eight operators — break several windows and stacks along the side as the entry team stacks at the door. On the team leaders order the snipers will stop shooting into the bus and four cover operators will then take immediate positions in the windows with their guns in the windows providing cover. The operators will need step ladders or use the their buddies to get the elevation needed to properly control the ported windows.
• The team leader will give a second command for the entry team to make entry once the cover operators have taken their position. Although this is a separate command the time delay should only take a second or two between the cover officers taking positions and the entry team making entry.
• Entry team enters bus through the door or the front window. The windows of commercial busses come out relatively easy with the proper tool. One good swipe and pull and the windshield is out of the frame.
• First man in goes to the driver and takes a position of on top of him covering “long” on that side of the bus.
• Second man takes cover on the steps or the first seat covering “long” on the opposite side of the driver.
• The next four to eight operators then clear the bus by moving down the isle clearing each seat as they go. Avoid scanning when clearing the seats. It’s faster to have the first guy look one direction and the second guy look the opposite, never scanning back across the bus but scanning forward as they clear.
• Once domination of the bus is achieved, the targets must be controlled quickly. If you fail to recognize them on the clearing operation, loud communication between the team leader and the occupants of the bus will be necessary. First yell loudly to the occupants to raise their hands towards the ceiling. Secondly, ask the occupants where the bad guy. Then you can ask if anybody is injured.
• After taking the targets into custody and evacuation of the occupants is complete do a second sweep of the vehicle for explosive devices.
This is a brief account of one tactic and if you inject variables than the tactics change to meet your needs. Remember, that a bus assault is a last resort effort and everything prior has failed, so to win you must fight chaos with chaos, only controlled in a tactical manner.