Calif. first responders practice emergency scenario drills

Scenarios include a terrorist intrusion at a nuclear center, college campus shooting, and a natural disaster. Drills are estimated to be the largest training exercise in the United States.

By Rachel Cohen
The Contra Costa Times

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY, Calif. — When the Oakland hills fire burned through more than 3,400 homes and killed 25 people in 1991, it was a test of how well law enforcement agencies could communicate with each other in the field.

Now, many of the public safety professionals who battled that blaze are retired, and many of today's younger members don't recall the region's last major natural disaster.

This weekend, about 300 public safety professionals from California and the nation will meet in Alameda County to participate in the "Urban Shield" drill organized by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office.

Residents of Dublin and nearby cities will hear some of these exercises. Some of the scenarios will require nighttime shooting at Camp Parks and the sheriff's training center in Dublin. There will also be light and sound devices going off in the middle of the night.

The training begins today and will conclude at 8 a.m. Monday.

It is estimated to be the largest training exercise in the United States and is the first geared toward the local urban environment, sheriff's spokesman J.D. Nelson said.

"There will be a scenario where you as a team go into an area and hear, 'Thank God you guys are here,'" Nelson said. "And then you have to deal with it."

Twenty-four tactical SWAT teams of seven or eight people each will run through exercises for more than 50 consecutive hours.

How they choose to find time to sleep is up to them, Nelson said, but most will have time only for catnaps during the scenarios -- including a terrorist intrusion at a nuclear center and a college campus shooting.

Each exercise is a competition, and though the Alameda County Sheriff's Office might be tempted to boast that it will win them all, it is likely to encounter competition from the state Department of Corrections in the "Quell Inmate Uprising" exercise and the Coast Guard in the "Maritime Interdiction" exercise.

The exercises will be spread among 22 sites in Alameda and San Mateo counties, based on the physical layout needed, including four in Oakland, three in Sunol and two each in San Leandro, Dublin, Livermore, Alameda and Foster City.

Ten teams are coming from Alameda County, including the Oakland Police Department. San Mateo County is sending three, and there are also contingents from the Contra Costa, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Stanislaus county sheriff's offices. A team from Boston also is flying in.

Nelson said agencies likely will count the exercise toward their required training hours. Urban Shield is funded through a regional Homeland Security program.

"Eventually, (the officers) know that facility where they train regularly, and there are only so many repetitions and routines you can do there," Nelson added.

The four-day exercise promises to challenge the physical and mental skills of the participating tactical team members, but Nelson said it also will be an interoperability test for the management team.

As has often been found in debriefings after natural disasters, many people show up ready to help, but deploying and then keeping track of everybody can be where the network starts to unravel, Nelson said.

"(The exercise) will also be figuring out systems in the field," he added. "It will be equally good training for the management of a disaster."

For more information, visit http://www.urbanshield.org.

Copyright 2007 Contra Costa Times

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