By Ken Gemmel
PoliceOne Special Contributor
I feel lucky. There is no other way to describe the chain of events leading to where I am today. Rewind 14 years and I’m a recruit at the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office wondering where this career will take me. When I think about it, I have to smile because it has been an incredible experience, so far.
I’ve been a member of our Special Response Unit (SRU) for the past 7 years. During that time, I’ve been fortunate to have competed in numerous SWAT competitions, ranging from the World SWAT Challenge (Arkansas), Best in the West (San Jose), the Placer County Tactical Challenge (Auburn), the Warrior Challenge (Amman, Jordan), the High Sierra Challenge (Tahoe) and in Urban Shield (2007, 2008, 2010, Boston 2011).
My travels and experiences thus far have proven there is no better event than Urban Shield. There are SWAT competitions all around the world and I’m sure they challenge each competitor’s level of fitness & marksmanship—and cement a team’s camaraderie. However, the competitions do not simultaneously challenge or test their region’s ability to respond to critical infrastructure; they do not integrate or test Fire/EMS/EOD; and they do not test communications or interoperability between area commands. Urban Shield is not just a competition. It is truly an experience each year in which thousands of people partake in to ensure the safety and preparedness of our region. I am by no means touting or inferring our event is better than anyone else’s. I am however very proud to represent the ACSO SRU as a small part of this enormous undertaking.
So what are the 50-plus hours like for the competitors? I’ll briefly explain as I’ve experienced U/S as both a team leader and an operator. Before the show starts you are greeted on Friday with a professional, motivating orientation, a medical evaluation by very courteous, experienced doctors and/or nurses, and an awesome BBQ. There is a vendor show where numerous state-of-the-art products are on display for us to view/manipulate/shoot before we’ll see them at a scenario. Our Sheriff, Greg Ahern, wants to equip us with the best gear, so he uses Urban Shield to T&E these products. Sheriff Ahern reviews the After Action reports from participating teams and uses their feedback to help make his future purchasing decisions. Everything on Friday is top notch and our department goes above and beyond to make everyone feel welcome.
When the first scenario briefing takes place on Saturday morning before sunrise, every team is always fired up, attentive, ready to run through any obstacle and complete whatever threat or challenge they throw at us. It is imperative the team leader controls this energy because there is plenty more to come. When the second-to-last scenario briefing takes place on Monday morning (everyone is enthusiastic at the last scenario), you see operators with fresh stubble, on the nod, uncomfortable because of their cold & sweat-soaked uniforms, hungry, thirsty, inattentive and ready for it all to be over. What happened over the course of the last 48 hours to create such an extreme change of demeanor?
Around 4,000 people collectively participated to ensure each of the 30 checkpoints was as challenging as the last. There is no break in the action. No chance to rest. You get briefed, brief back your team, and take on a challenging mission that has been designed to test your physical abilities, teamwork, planning, tactical mindset and regional assets. Upon completion of the mission there is a debrief, you load up in a crammed, “rose-scented” unmarked van, brief the next site in transit, arrive and do it again. And again. And again.
When you reach the confidence course, a physically demanding gamut of obstacles awaits with a hill run afterwards that will put you at max heart rate before you can question what you got yourself into. The course has numerous rolling hills, so your emotions rollercoaster as you think the pain will end, only to see the next set of hills from each peak that gradually gets taller, steeper, and meaner.
Finish that course and start a live fire exercise that will require a hasty plan, stealth movement, team lifts, and well-timed execution to ensure success. That may come at the first or final hour; it all depends on when your team starts. Approximately 28 other scenarios will follow, each with force-on-force simunations, each with a challenge that has been planned and rehearsed for months to ensure we are tested and that we learn from the experience.
I know, behind the scenes, there are a lot of hard-working personnel from numerous agencies that ensure the event runs smoothly. I have never experienced a problem with the timeline or logistics. I have not seen a volunteer, role player or evaluator complain. When we arrive at a checkpoint, everyone gets up, greets us and maintains a positive attitude. As the event grows long into the second night, I’ve always found it motivating to see everyone throw everything they have at us as if we were the first team they’d seen.
The event ends with a day of excellent training/lecture for all who want to participate and a top-shelf banquet filled with great food, well-needed rehydration, renowned key-note speakers and an awards presentation.
One week after the previous year’s Urban Shield ends, meticulous planning and preparation begins for the next event. Each year has always been bigger and better than the last, and I expect the same in 2012. This will likely be my last year of competing. I’ve been training relentlessly and will work hard from start to finish to contribute to my team’s success. It’s been a good run. I’ve been lucky.