The Hostage Rescue Team: 30 years of service

Ravage

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http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2013/february/the-hostage-rescue-team-30-years-of-service

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HRT members debrief after a training exercise at their headquarters in Quantico, Virginia.

Last month marked the 30th anniversary of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT)—federal law enforcement’s only full-time counterterrorism unit—a highly trained group of special agents often called upon during the toughest times.


When needed, the team is prepared to deploy within four hours of notification to anywhere in the U.S. in response to terrorist incidents, hostage situations, and major criminal threats. Although the HRT has been tasked to fill a variety of roles throughout the years, its highest priority has always been to react to a major terrorist incident and to ensure the safe release of hostages.

“There is no greater mission we have than to save somebody’s life,” said Kevin Cornelius, a former HRT operator who now commands the team.


Although the HRT was originally conceived to provide a tactical response to terrorism (see sidebar), the team possesses capabilities that do not exist anywhere else in civilian law enforcement. Operators are able to fast-rope out of helicopters, parachute with full mission equipment, and conduct advanced SCUBA techniques. They are trained to be superior marksmen, proficient in a variety of breaching techniques—including explosives—and experts in close-quarter tactics. Each operator’s skill and training ensures that the HRT can launch assaults with speed, precision, and, if necessary, deadly force.


U.S. law enforcement relies on a tiered response to critical incidents such as a terrorist attack or hostage situation. First responders usually come from the local and state level and might include SWAT teams and crisis negotiators. If a situation cannot be resolved at that level, federal assets such as the HRT may be called in.


HRT operators also provide technical and tactical assistance to FBI field offices, which often leads to the apprehension of violent offenders. Most of the HRT’s operations in the U.S. occur as a result of detailed investigations conducted by special agents in the field.


Since the first generation of HRT operators were trained in 1983, team members have deployed domestically and around the globe nearly 800 times, putting themselves in harm’s way to help safeguard the nation and to save lives.


“As an elite counterterrorism tactical team for law enforcement, the HRT is one of the best, if not the best, in the United States,” said Sean Joyce, deputy director of the FBI and former HRT operator. “They are elite because of their training,” he explained. “But they are FBI agents first and foremost, and they have the ability to perform special agent duties—whether it’s obtaining evidence or interviewing an individual—anywhere in the world while being able to operate in all types of environments, no matter how inhospitable.”


Not surprisingly, it takes a certain kind of special agent to become an HRT operator. In its 30-year existence, fewer than 300 individuals have been selected to join the team. Those who make it possess remarkable physical and mental toughness. They may be capable of extraordinary individual effort, but they understand the team always comes first—even before their own personal needs. Identifying candidates who possess not only the necessary physical and tactical abilities but also the right combination of personality traits is an integral part of the team’s demanding selection process.

 

Ravage

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The Hostage Rescue Team
Part 2: The Crucible of Selection


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HRT “selectees” are distinguishable during selection only by number and the color of their clothes.

http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2013/february/hostage-rescue-team-the-crucible-of-selection

FBI agents hoping to earn a spot on the Hostage Rescue Team—federal law enforcement’s lead counterterrorism tactical team—relinquish their names when they report for the grueling selection process held at Quantico, Virginia each year.

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Qualifying for the Team
FBI agents interested in joining the HRT must first spend at least three years as field investigators. “You have to prove yourself as an FBI agent first before you come here,” said Special Agent John Piser, a former HRT operator who runs the selection program.


In 2006, to enlist more candidates, the Bureau established the Tactical Recruiting Program (TRP), which recruits individuals with tactical experience from the ranks of law enforcement and the military to fast-track them for HRT eligibility. TRP recruits follow the normal process to become FBI agents, but instead of spending three years in the field before being eligible to try out for the HRT, they are eligible after two.


Still, Piser said, “the selection process operates in a vacuum.” It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done previously. “If you don’t perform well at selection,” he explained, “you aren’t going to make the team.”


During two exhausting weeks of tests and drills that purposely induce physical and mental stress, candidates are known to their evaluators only as “selectees,” and the only thing that distinguishes them from one another is an identifying color and number worn on their clothes. It is all part of the process that helps evaluators choose the very best individuals for one of the most demanding—and rewarding—jobs in the FBI.

“The process is designed to identify individuals who will perform the best in a crisis situation,” said FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce, a former HRT operator. “The point is to break you down to see how you perform under stress. When you don’t get a lot of sleep—sometimes going on one or two hours a day—over a period of time, it’s going to break you down pretty quickly.”


On the first day, candidates are roused well before dawn for physical fitness tests that include running, swimming, and stair-climbing with a 55-pound vest and 35-pound battering ram—all with little rest between activities. “The first day is the easy day,” said Special Agent John Piser, a former HRT operator who runs the selection process.


Punishing runs while carrying heavy gear, along with drills carried out in high places, cramped quarters, and other unforgiving circumstances are the norm during selection. Being in peak physical condition is critical, but candidates must also perform well on firearms tests and during complex arrest scenarios. Equally important is showing good judgment, thinking on your feet, and being a team player—despite being sleep-deprived and physically drained.


“You can be the fastest person in the world, the strongest person in the world, or the smartest person in the world,” Joyce explained, “but if you’re not willing to be a part of the team, you don’t belong on HRT.”

In addition to being able to work with others, evaluators are looking for other core personality characteristics such as loyalty, leadership, and discipline. And during the two-week trial, selectees have no idea how they are doing.

“They get zero feedback,” Piser said. “No negative or positive. We give them a task and it’s on them to perform. We tell them, all events are evaluated and to give it 100 percent.” That can be tough on certain personalities, he added. “They want that feedback, and we give them nothing.” It’s another way to test mental toughness.


Typically, about half of every class drops out for various reasons during the selection process. Even if a person is still standing at the end of two weeks, Piser said, that is no guarantee he will make the team. “Just surviving is not enough.”


Next: The real training begins.


 

Ravage

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http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2013/february/hostage-rescue-team-training-for-every-contingency

The Hostage Rescue Team
Part 3: Training for Every Contingency



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Live-fire close-quarter battle exercises in the HRT’s “shooting house” mimic real-world missions.

The handful of special agents who make it through the Hostage Rescue Team’s selection process have only just begun their journey to become HRT operators. Each new generation of recruits must undergo eight months of intensive training before joining the team and deploying on missions.


“As an HRT operator, you are going to be on the cutting edge of what the Bureau does tactically, both in the United States and overseas,” said Special Agent John Piser, a former operator who now runs the team’s selection and training programs. “That requires a substantial commitment—and a significant amount of training.”


Recruits relocate to be near the HRT’s headquarters in Quantico, Virginia. There, they begin New Operator Training School—a full-time job and a total immersion into the world of tactics, firearms, and teamwork.


Over the course of 32 weeks, new operators learn specialized skills—fast-roping out of helicopters and SCUBA diving, for example—and few are more critical than close-quarter battle (CQB). “How quickly we can secure a house with a credible threat inside might mean the difference between a hostage living or dying,” Piser said.


As new operators advance in tactical expertise, training drills become more complex. Live-fire CQB exercises in the HRT’s “shooting house” mimic real-world missions. The shooting house is a large, maze-like series of rubber-coated walls—the rubber absorbs bullets and prevents ricocheting—that can be arranged into different room configurations so a variety of scenarios can be played out. As operators work together to effect a successful resolution, instructors view their movements from catwalks above.

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Instructors watch new operators go through their movements from catwalks above.

“The HRT is federal law enforcement’s first-tier tactical team because of its advanced training and capabilities,” noted Special Agent Kevin Cornelius, a section chief and former operator who now commands the team. That’s the main difference between SWAT teams and the HRT. Whereas Bureau SWAT members train a few days each month—while maintaining their full-time jobs as investigators—HRT operators train full-time and have capabilities SWAT teams don’t possess, such as the ability to operate in extreme climates.


“When a crisis situation exceeds the capabilities of local and regional tactical teams,” Cornelius said, “then the HRT gets the call. Because of our extensive training, we are more prepared to address complex problems.”


After New Operator Training School, graduates join individual teams within the HRT. For the first year they continue to develop their basic assault skills—but they must also specialize as breachers, communicators, or medics. The fast-paced culture is “very satisfying,” Piser said, but it’s not without sacrifice. Operators are often away from their families for extended periods and can be called away with little notice.


“The time away from home is difficult,” said Sean Joyce, a former HRT member who is now the FBI’s deputy director, “but that’s something operators and families learn to cope with.” He added that the extensive, continuous training HRT operators go through that keeps them from their personal lives is absolutely essential—“because what you do in practice is what you’re going to do when the real game is on.”
 
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