Agencies practice in hostage drill

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Members of the county's Special Response Team (SRT) take a gunman into custody during a drill by the Hostage Negotiantion Team at the former Bayard Plant in Old Lycoming Township on Wednesday.

First responders answered the dispatch of an active shooter and hostage situation at the old Bayard Printing location on Helminiak Drive around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday prepared as if the situation were real.

But the incident was part of the county’s ongoing vigilance when it comes to serious incidents that could happen at anytime, anywhere.

Following closely after the initial call were more members from the Old Lycoming Township and city police departments and the county’s Special Response and Hostage Negotiations teams.

Around 30 law enforcement officers had the place surrounded shortly after until the SRT team had the gunman detained around 11:30 a.m.

The county and the negotiations team have been planning the training scenario for over a month, Chief County Det. William Weber said.

Spearheaded by Warden Kevin DeParlos and other members of the Lycoming County Prison, the negotiations team has been around for 15 years, Weber said.

There are around a dozen members of the team from mostly the prison and adult probations, but there are members from different municipal police departments as well, Cpl. Morris M. Sponhouse II, of the Old Lycoming Township Police Department and the negotiations team, said.

The team gets called to a real incident along with the SRT team around once a year, Weber said.

But to keep members of both teams sharp in different situations, there are two training events along with different police departments a year.

“The major objective of these drills are to get two police departments from the county to cooperate together,” Weber said. “This year was one of the larger ones we’ve had.”

Great effort is made to make the training as authentic as possible.

The armed man in the exercise had taken three hostages and there was already one casualty when the SRT team came through the rear entrance earlier in the morning, Weber said.

The Montgomery Emergency Management van packed with members of the team of negotiators and the command unit in Loyalsock’s Incident Management truck were parked close by.

The negotiations van had a direct line to the hostage-taker and gathered intelligence to pass on to the incident command center, deputy warden of security and operations at the county prison Brad A. Shoemaker said.

“As we give information to the command center, they are giving information to us,” he said. “They have more eyes and ears information and we have the direct contact. We exchange that information to get a better understanding of what’s going on inside.”

A hostage was released by the gunman about two hours into the incident and was brought to the negotiators’ van for a debrief —  a crucial part of any hostage scenario.

“We ask them a series of questions about appearance, clothing, layout of the rooms, any injuries or health issues or general attitude of the gunman,” Shoemaker said. “It’s important because they were in the situation real-time. The SRT team may know there is a gunmen and that he has hostages, but they don’t know that he has a beard or what he’s wearing.”

These training exercises are not only important for department cooperation, but also to keep learning, Sponhouse said.

“I learn something new every time,” he said. “Hostage negotiation may be a basic skill like interviewing, which we do every day, but it can be very delicate. These people are fragile and cracked and believe they are at the end. They are crying out for help.”

Without the cooperation of the county’s agencies and the companies that provide space for the drills, the drills wouldn’t be possible, Sponhouse said.

“We would like to extend our thanks to Bayard and the other places in the past that have vacant buildings they allow us to use,” he said.