Today was an interesting experience.
About a month ago an officer from the Omaha Sheriff's department approached me about the possibility of running a hostage negotiation training exercise at Beth Israel. Our community is incredibly grateful for everything that our law enforcement agencies do to protect us so naturally I agreed.
Today at 10:00am I am half a dozen of my congregants volunteered to be "hostages" for a staged scenario. We gathered in the main sanctuary when a masked man with a machine gun came in and started yelling at us.
Everyone in the room knew that the man was an actor, but he was so good that I think everyone in the room was a bit scared. I did not expect it to feel so real and it really brings home how terrifying a real incident would be. He rounded us up and sat us in a row of seats and confiscated our cell phones. He perched himself in the back of the sanctuary and continued to hold us at gunpoint in silence.
After about 10 minutes the actor got up and took off his mask and told us we were taking an intermission. Every one of us breathed a sigh of relief. He cracked a few jokes to lighten the mood and let us know that it would be more relaxed from then on. I got to take some pictures and send out some tweets.
The real purpose of the exercise was to prepare the response teams and the negotiators and the activity would be taking place outside the shul so we could act normally inside. That was a great relief to all of us. I cannot even imagine the fear that people in real hostage situations must experience, especially in long drawn out scenarios.
They held us there for an hour and then some of us were given parts to act out. One lady was supposed to pretend to be a diabetic and that she needed insulin. This was supposed to add some realism to the officers outside and some added stress. One of my congregants is a county Sheriffs officer. She was with us and part of the script was that the terrorist discovered that she was "one of them." This also added some drama to the dynamic.
Meanwhile at the Sheriff's office... the police were only told that today was an exercise. They were not given any details to what was going on. The scenario allowed for certain clues. For instance, one actor was the cab driver who brought the terrorist to the synagogue. He worked for a fictional cab company and the police contacted them, tracked him down and got some info. They were able to trace a call to the shul from our secretary who was able to "escape" before anything happened. They were able to find out everything about the "terrorist" from these clues. They tracked down my cell phone number and contacted me which put them in communication with the terrorist.
This particular scenario was not supposed to be tactical. It was meant to practice negotiations. The Terrorist in the script did not have a fully laid out plan and his profile was not someone who would necessarily hurt others. The hope was to talk him into giving up before he hurt us or himself.
After a couple of hours (!!!) they wore the terrorist down through negotiations and he came out on his own.
I learned a great deal from my experience today. First of all, I was honored to meet so many dedicated officers who take their jobs of protecting the citizens of Omaha so seriously.
I also learned that our synagogue is actually a very safe place. The windows, layout, and many exits make our sanctuary impossible to really hold us hostage and in real life we all would have been able to escape and the police would have been able to stop him with ease.
I also feel that even a simple scenario like this made the volunteer hostages and myself more mindful of potential situations. I don't know how I would react if something actually happened, God forbid, but I feel a bit more prepared. I see how these training exercises are beneficial for the police.
It was an honor to do our part in any small way to help keep Omaha safe, and I pray that a scenario like this is only academic and the officers never have to use the tactics that they learned for real.