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CQB in Auditoriums
Almost every jurisdiction, regardless of its size, has some sort of auditorium-type room configuration. A movie theatre, lecture hall and school auditorium share common features: a stage or dais, rows of seats often in ascending levels, and one or more aisles. The room dimensions are large both in square feet and height. The main public entry points are doors at the rear of the room. Some churches have a similar floor plan. Although the basic tenets of dynamic room clearing apply, this type of room configuration adds new dimensions that are not usually encountered elsewhere.
When it comes to a hostage rescue scenario in an auditorium, the assailants have an advantage in anticipating the team’s probable points of entry. The large public doorways are the obvious points of ingress. Therefore, we must seize the initiative by either entering by an unexpected method and locale, or by breaching through multiple doorways using extremely dynamic methods—employing maximum speed, shock and surprise.
The first option that comes to mind is explosive breaching. This method offers multiple options and combines a positive breach with stun capabilities. With an explosive breach, a wall or ceiling can become an entry point. Also, breachers can use port charges to make holes in a wall so cover men can get “gun on” the interior while the doors are being entered. Either option, combined with the shock effect of the charge detonating, can have excellent results by stunning and distracting the occupants.
If lacking explosive capabilities, a modified version of “breach and hold” can work when using conventional methods and entering through ordinary doors. Generally, auditoriums will have two main public doorways, often one per aisle, to accommodate the mass movement of people. There might also be fire doors located on the sides of the building. The theory behind this method is to simultaneously breach all exterior doors and deploy multiple flash bangs at each door. The goal is to create mass confusion inside, thus masking the team’s true entry point.
Timing and breaching methods must be fine-tuned to the max. The breach has to be positive, especially when using mechanical methods. Also, consider the possibility that you may be breaching fire-rated doors, which are of heavier construction. Consider using rescue saws in addition to more common mechanical tools, and have bolt cutters ready in case the doors are chained.
With all other variables excluded, a single point of entry into the main portion of the auditorium is preferable. Dual entries from doors on adjacent walls can pose a crossfire issue depending on the suspect’s location in the room. A more severe potential problem arises when entering from multiple doors on the same wall. The proximity of the assault teams leaves little margin for error if the suspect appears between the teams and almost guarantees that operators will muzzle sweep each other.
The structure may also include dressing rooms, mechanical rooms or offices adjacent to the stage, yet concealed from public view. These rooms can include exterior doors that serve as a link to the auditorium. A covert initial entry and approach is another option to access the main auditorium room. When using this method, the team must be prepared to go dynamic as soon as it is compromised. The longer hostages are held, the greater the risk that the assailants have explored these adjacent rooms and discovered the concealed passages.
Front or Rear Assault?
While it may seem counterintuitive, a frontal assault has some distinct advantages. When the public access doors are at the rear of the main room, the hostage taker may concentrate his focus on that potential method of entry. He may not yet be aware of other entry points within the floor plan.
Assaulters are provided with a full frontal image of the room’s occupants. They can watch facial expressions and may be able to see hands. As they move up the aisles, there is faster recognition of threats while looking down the rows of seats. Overhead threats such as catwalks or a projection booth can be covered from operators posted in a static position upon entry. Consider all the angles presented.
Room clearing from the back of the building presents a different set of factors. It may be the only available point of entry. If the suspects are seated with the hostages or facing forward, they will have to turn to confront the entry team. If the room is built on a slope toward the stage, the elevation can be an advantage by presenting a panoramic view of the room.
General Tactical Concepts
We want to maintain as much continuity as possible with regular dynamic CQB. That way, operators do not have to learn a totally different methodology for one particular operation. Verbal commands remain the same, as does the concept of clearing in progressive increments. These segments may now become blocks or portions of the room that are visually interpreted, rather than well-defined rooms with doorways. One constant to remember is these types of missions are manpower intensive. Consider combining adjacent teams for training and actual operations.
The initial room entry can employ two to four operators depending on the entry point’s doorway position (center or corner fed door) and the proximity to the main aisles. Once that initial toe hold is gained and immediate threats are countered, the clear and go signal may be given. These first operators in the room provide static security, generally covering long threats within the room, while the clearing teams enter. If needed, an additional element may enter to cover overhead threats before room clearing begins.
Generally, a four- to six-man element is needed for each aisle to be cleared. The potential for crossfire fratricide exists. Limit lines for engagement and individual areas of responsibility must be thoroughly briefed and rehearsed. Each element has its own leader to control the pace and designate where the element will split and post to cover pre-set Areas of Responsibility (AOR). These AOR need to have a certain level of flexibility that takes into account the exact position of suspects and adjacent clearing teams.
As each team progresses down its aisle, it visually clears the rows of seats. Dividing the aisle into thirds makes a good visual AOR reference when employing a six-man element. The team leader controls the pace to keep parallel with the team in the adjacent aisle. When the stack reaches the limit line for its AOR, the team leader calls “Post.”
On that signal, the first two operators of that stack turn outboard to get out of the aisle and take a static security position for the next AOR. They may need to step into the seating area depending on the width of the aisle. Simultaneously, the remainder of the stack passes through, and the next two operators take over front coverage. The method repeats itself at the two-thirds mark and again at the end of the aisle. This method is fluid, swift and allows a large room to be dominated efficiently.
When the length of the aisles is completely cleared, the dominate command is given verbally. Each clearing team gives its own “dominate” command. Individual operators can now adjust their positions to provide the best coverage inside their individual AOR to avoid crossfire. Some operators may choose to get their backs to a wall to reduce their coverage area. Every operator should have a visual link with at least one other operator. Once all teams have given their signal, the overall commander in the room can radio to the CP that they are “secure and covering.”
In this situation, the hostages will already be centralized in the one large room. On the command to “Reorganize,” operators, who will be working in pairs, can switch to restraining the suspects and securing weapons. Detailed searches can begin at this time, including looking under the seats, behind the curtains, etc. A basic rule to be followed is to segregate the hostages from the hostage takers. When a large number of hostages are present, it may be sensible to first remove the hostage takers from the auditorium.
Once the threats are removed, we can slow down and better control the evacuation process. Be sure to verbally reassure the hostages that they are safe and make inquiries about unreported injuries, persons hiding, or even disguised hostage takers who may still be in the room. A hostage taker may attempt to escape by posing as a hostage. In some situations, hostages may not identify these people for fear of reprisal. Detailed questioning along with watching for non-verbal cues aids in identifying these people.
Also inquire about booby traps, weapons and suspicious packages that the hostage takers brought. There are three basic methods for evacuating a large room; the roots for these methods come from bus hostage rescue operations. The team leader in the room will assess and announce the type of evacuation process to be employed.
Three Types of Evac
Normal Evac is used when there are no longer identifiable threats in the AO. The process involves an entire row standing up and the occupants being individually searched and escorted out of the room. This process can be accomplished by passing hostages man to man down the aisle rather than having a single operator escort each person out. An assistant team leader maintains a running head count of evacuees while the remaining operators provide security.
Hasty Evac is based on a need to quickly evacuate the room with a level of control. Such an evacuation is necessary when a suspicious device is present or if there is a need to make room for medics to treat multiple trauma casualties. Row by row, hostages stand and move out through the aisles. They are searched and identified once outside. Operators need to position themselves at intervals along the aisle to control the egress.
Emergency Evac is used when there is an immediate need to evacuate the room, such as in the case of a fire. An entire section of hostages (all rows front to rear as defined using the aisle limit line) stands and evacuates. Begin the movement with the rows closest to the exit. Again, operators need to be strategically placed to guide the process and assist injured occupants.
It only makes sense to train for a potential threat that can produce such a large amount of hostage victims. Identifying venues in your jurisdiction and rehearsing plans to the point of having a SOP adds another level of tactical expertise to your team. Maintain as much continuity as possible with your regular CQB methods, but look for innovative adaptations for the venue you are working in.
Be aware that this type of mission requires a large quantity of operators, so plan on training with adjacent teams. Lastly, look at the entire process of the operation. Develop and practice plans for the evacuation, triage and movement of hostages to a secure area.
Acknowledgements: A special thanks to Sheriff Steve Nichols, Chief Deputy Mark Landers, Sergeant Sean Kindred and the Logan County Sheriff’s Department as well as Lincoln College for their assistance with the photographs for this article.
Ron Yanor is retired after a 25-year law enforcement career. Since 1999, he has been a contract trainer and currently operates Adamax Tactical Academy in Illinois. He is also on the staff of Tactical Energetic Entry Systems.
Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2011
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