Posted on Jan. 27, 2022 by Niki Nelson

Despite having different names, there can be confusion on the difference between an active threat and a hostage or barricade situation. Understanding the difference is crucial because each situation requires different, unique law enforcement responses.


A hostage is a person held captive against their will until a specific ultimatum is met. The hostage is usually held by force—sometimes with the threat of a deadly weapon, such as with a gun to their head or knife to their neck—but occasionally hostages are held by verbal threats. The subject expects some kind of demand to be met in exchange for not harming the person they are holding hostage.

When faced with a hostage situation, law enforcement must reason or negotiate with the hostage taker and attempt to get them to peacefully surrender without harming the person/people they are holding hostage. As each situation is different, these complicated events require flexibility and preparation for many different routes the encounter may take.


In a barricade situation, an individual confines themselves to specific area that does not allow others to enter, then refuses to leave the area despite commands. A barricaded subject poses a danger to others, but unlike an active threat event, they are in a relatively fixed position and not roaming where a stream of potential victims may be.

Barricade incidents can be dangerous as many subjects have deadly weapons. At times, they threaten their own lives or the lives of others from their position. Barricades can go on for hours, as seen in this incident in Georgetown, KY. Sometimes others are within the barricaded area with the subject, despite not being held hostage.


A hostage barricade situation is a combination of the two incidents above; the subject is confined to an area and unwilling to leave while also holding a person against their will in exchange for an ultimatum. Hostage/barricade is often confused with an active threat, especially when shots are fired.

An example of a hostage/barricade would be when a bank robber is interrupted by police, then holds a customer or teller against their will to try and wrestle control away from law enforcement. In unfortunate circumstances, these situations may evolve into a murder/suicide where the subject kills the hostage(s) and then themselves.

Active Threat

There are characteristics of an active threat/active killer event that distinguish it from any of the aforementioned situations. Some of these include:

  • An ongoing supply of potential victims
  • A detailed plan for the attack
  • Location is chosen for tactical or personal reasons
  • Traditional “contain and negotiate” police tactics are not appropriate to use
  • The goal for the killer is to kill as many people as possible in a short time

Active Threat / Active Killer Coursework

Module 1 of VirTra’s ATAK curriculum delves into not just preparation and practice for dealing with active threats, but helps law enforcement trainees distinguish between active threats and other situations. The 3-hour V-VICTA™ course offers testing and simulator practice on correctly identifying the threat, and then in turn, handling it in the proper way.

To learn how VirTra’s certified curriculum and immersive training scenarios can help law enforcement handle even the toughest events, contact a product specialist.

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