The message crackles over the walkie-talkie in Alvernia’s Office of Public Safety on a pretty spring day in May, breaking the tranquility of a campus readying itself for graduation and summer.
It is the message you never want to hear. But Joe Thomas, director of public safety, is as cool as an iced mocha latte. “It made my heart race just a bit,” confessed Thomas as he learned that a bus full of students en route from the upland Center to main campus had just been taken hostage, apparently at gunpoint.
But the veteran safety director has been there before and without so much as a flinch, begins to mobilize his team, contacting the reading Police Department and locking down the campus as safety precautions. Of course, it helps that Joe had been in touch many moons before with Professor Edgar Hartung, the two plotting along with a small, hand-picked group of administrators to plan a crisis drill that would give the 16 students in Hartung’s Crisis Management class a lesson they would never forget.
Hartung, a retired FBI Agent, U.S. Air Force pilot and Vietnam vet who heads up Alvernia’s criminal justice program, regularly puts his students through an intense, three-hour hostage negotiation exercise called the Grand Final Scenario. It’s experiential learning at its best and makes an indelible mark on participants.
Just ask recent graduate Ryan Hermany ’12, a straight-A student whom faculty member Rosemary C. McFee calls the “star of the criminal justice” program. It was only a year earlier that it was his turn to foil a hostage situation on campus.
“The Grand Final Scenario is basically the pinnacle of a criminal justice education at Alvernia,” says Hermany, who served a six-month internship with the U.S. Marshals in Washington D.C., and recently presented a research paper at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice sciences in New York City. “It takes all of the things that you’ve learned in your criminal justice training and asks you to use it in a nerve-racking, close-to-real-life hostage situation.
I didn't sleep at all the night before, because I was running through potential situations in my head and how I'd react. But nothing can prepare you for what you’ll face that day. Nothing.”That’s because Hartung, 70, spent half of his life “breaking down doors and arresting bad guys,” so he’s able to tap into a rich archive of experiences to invent a different scenario each semester.“We’ve done bank robberies, kidnappers taking over a school or taking over an embassy,” says Hartung. “No matter what the scenario, I make it as realistic and as stressful as possible. We deliberately and continually pump up the stress in these exercises to approximate the real terror and stress you go through when someone’s life is in jeopardy. Because when you are in a real hostage situation, people’s lives are in your hands.
”When students arrive for Hartung’s Grand Final scenario, they are given a brief script, told their roles and are given 15 minutes to respond to the situation. For Hermany, that scenario was a robbery/hostage situation at a fictional bank where a teller has triggered a silent alarm and local police officers have responded. A hostage situation quickly develops.
As the scenario unfolds, it is learned that the police department has a mutual aid agreement with the area’s tactical SWAT team and the Crisis Negotiation team. For this exercise, those teams are made up of Alvernia students. Hermany’s role is to supervise the negotiation team and a mental health consultant.
The students set up a command post — complete with a field commander, intelligence officer, two recorder/status board officers, a public information officer and a five-person tactical team — and quickly get to work trying to negotiate a settlement with hostage takers.Hartung posts public safety personnel all around the area, so that anyone accidentally walking into the scenario understands it is just an exercise. To add realism, local law enforcement leaders, members of reading’s hostage negotiations team and fellow criminal justice faculty members participate in grand final scenarios as terrorists, hostages and advisors.
“We believe that you learn by doing,” says Barry Harvey, an assistant criminal justice professor and regular participant who was “killed” as a hostage a few years back in one of these exercises. “Our job is to teach our students what they’ll need to succeed and then hone their ability to use what they’ve learned by putting them in different, real-life scenarios.
“These Grand Final scenarios are as close to real life as possible, and they give our students an opportunity to practice what they’ve learned in a stressful, but simulated situation.
”Despite an ultra-competitive job market — a market where the Pennsylvania state police receive 8,000 plus applications for a class of 50 cadets — Hartung believes that Hermany and his fellow criminal justice classmates have been uniquely prepared between real-life exercises, internships and the expertise that Alvernia’s professors have imparted on them from their days in the fields of law enforcement, terrorism, probation and corrections.
“Textbooks, at times, can be dry, so I try to intersperse some real-life stories into the classroom — whether it’s telling them about a particular kidnapping case or serial killer case that I worked on — or putting them in real scenarios and getting them to solve the problem,” says Hartung.
“Plus, we hire professors who have been there and done that, because I believe that experienced law enforcement professionals make the best teachers and that students, like Ryan, literally leave here prepared for anything.”