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Preparation is key: Law enforcement holds staged training exercise at Buford Dam
Forsyth County SWAT team members jump in the back of a pickup truck on their way to a staged incident during training at Buford Dam on Thursday. - photo by Isabel Hughes

“I’ll tell you what, I tell you what,” the person pretending to be a hostage-taker yelled into the phone, pacing behind a flipped-over table. “Get a reporter down here … and I’ll call you back, OK?”

A pause brought momentary silence to the room as Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office crisis negotiators on the other end attempted to keep the suspect — holed up in a room inside Buford Dam’s powerhouse building with three pretending to be hostages — on the line. 

The phony 911 call — the beginning of a staged exercise — drew response from Forsyth County deputies, the sheriff’s office SWAT team, the agency’s crisis negotiation team, Corps rangers and the North Fulton SWAT Team as part of a training exercise that lasted until about 3 p.m. Thursday.

The fake scenario to which they were responding: It was noon, approximately three hours after deputies first received the call that a suspect, armed with a possible bomb in his car and a semi-automatic, had shot a U.S. Army Corps of Engineer ranger and taken at least one hostage at Buford Dam on Lake Lanier.

The training aimed to mimic a real-life incident, with approximately 100 law enforcement officials on scene Thursday.

“We do this one every couple of years,” said Corps spokesman Nick Baggett. “There was one year a few years ago that we had Gwinnett County do a SWAT exercise with Forsyth County where one [agency] did it during the day and one did it during the night, but I don’t know that we’ve ever done it quite like this. It’s always been internal, inside the dam, but this is more expansive and really what is needed when you start looking at these scenarios.”

The exercise brought nearly every facet of law enforcement together — from snipers to crisis negotiators to 911 call-takers — in an attempt to iron out any flaws in the agencies’ response, should a real-life incident like Thursday’s occur.

While no one has attempted to take the dam in its 60-plus year history, earlier this year, Forsyth County SWAT responded to a hostage situation where a south Forsyth man held his 11-month-old baby captive following a domestic incident with his wife.

Weeks earlier, SWAT teams from North Fulton, Forsyth and Cherokee counties, as well as a Crisis Negotiation Team from Forsyth, Georgia State Patrol officers and an aviation unit and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation responded to an incident in north Forsyth where a man barricaded himself in his home after opening fire on deputies, striking one in the leg.

While incidents like these don’t happen too frequently, Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman said it’s imperative his men and women are prepared in any event.

“In today’s world, we continue to see terrorist attacks and major criminal acts occurring inside the United States,” he said. “In my mind, it’s more important than ever for local law enforcement to be prepared and that includes having relationships and cross training with surrounding law enforcement agencies.”