With Urban Shield, the journey is the destination
By Tom Wright
Turn the clock back to July 2007, I am a brand new lieutenant recently assigned to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Airport Police Services contract at the Oakland International Airport. My boss congratulated me on my new assignment and explained what was expected from me as the unit’s new executive officer. He also congratulated me and informed me I was now the new site captain for the aircraft interdiction scenario for the first Urban Shield exercise. I learned my new boss was the Urban Shield Gold Area commander and the aircraft scenario fell under his command. He concluded his welcome speech by handing me a telephone number for the VP of operations at the Federal Express facility and told me to “secure” a FedEx cargo plane for the scenario. Did I mention our first Urban Shield exercise was held in September 2007, just two months away!
Of course, we secured the aircraft (although you can imagine the stress level), among many other vessels, trains, automobiles, buses, buildings and several other properties for our very first and successful Urban Shield exercise. That was my introduction to what has become the best emergency preparedness training exercise in the nation, if not the world.
As a site captain for the Urban Shield weekend in 2007, I looked on with pride as our entire scenario staff received many animated handshakes and compliments from SWAT operators who were impressed by the realistic and challenging training. Many of the operators had never trained on board an aircraft before. I heard comments like “this is the best hands on training I have received in years,” and “I received more training this weekend than I have the past 10 years as a SWAT operator.” The compliments seemed genuine and sincere coming from these seasoned and experienced SWAT operators. As a previous member of our Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Special Response Team (I know, it was less than a year) my adrenaline would start to flow as I watched the numerous teams come through and successfully complete our scenario. I have been hooked on the event ever since.
My different Urban Shield titles and responsibilities since 2007 have included Site Captain, Area Commander, Area Commander Liaison, US 2011 Deputy Incident Commander and the overall Incident Commander US 2012. I have witnessed Urban Shield mature from its more narrow original focus on law enforcement tactical team training into an all-encompassing first responder emergency preparedness exercise that includes Fire, EMS, Medical and EOD. As the event has expanded, so too has the demand on command, planning and logistics staff. Urban Shield is not just producing better SWAT operators, it is producing better prepared emergency services professionals who better understand how to communicate and collaborate across agencies and sectors.
I have watched Urban Shield grow from 22 tactical teams, four operational area commands, three fixed medical checkpoints and one Disaster Operations Center (DOC) in 2007 into where it is today. The overall framework for US 2012 involved 32 tactical teams, seven operational area commands, one DOC, 11 individual fire scenarios, a stand-alone Explosive Ordnance scenario, an EMS force protection scenario and four fixed medical checkpoints along with several tailgate medical stations. Let’s put this in perspective on the amount of locations involved for US 2012. There are 27 tactical scenarios, one technology showcase and four medical checkpoints for the 32 participating tactical teams, one EOD scenario location for eight participating EOD teams, 11 individual fire scenarios for the numerous search and rescue and HAZMAT participating fire teams. All scenario locations fall under one of the seven operational area commands, which all report to the DOC located at our Office of Homeland Security Emergency Services located in Dublin, California. Oh yeah, did I mention all of these locations are spread out over five counties of our greater Bay Area? Tactical teams have the luxury of starting at 0530 hours on opening day knowing they will finish after 48 hours of continuous and dynamic hands-on training. The fire teams will participate in challenging and realistic training throughout the weekend over two 12-hour operational periods and the participating EOD teams will be presented with three separate and very challenging EOD scenarios over two 12-hour operational periods. Now you know why it takes dozens of people from our Urban Shield planning team over 10 months to plan and prepare for our annual Urban Shield exercise.
Incorporating Fire, EMS and EOD into our annual Urban Shield exercises did not just happen overnight. It involved many forward thinking and innovative people. Too many to list, but one example I will use is Jim Morrissey who originally started in 2007 as our overall rappel site coordinator. Jim is also a FBI tactical paramedic. He was instrumental in incorporating the EMS first responders into the tactical team scenarios. He and his colleagues saw a need for EMS force protection training so the tactical teams could provide cover for EMS personnel as they provided immediate life saving triage of mass casualty victims. We now have had an EMS force protection scenario the last three years of Urban Shield, thus providing invaluable training to responding EMS professionals and LE tactical teams allowing them to respond and work together.
I am convinced Urban Shield has saved lives. How? By exposing our first responders to the newest technology, equipment and training and having all of it “field tested” in our realistic hands-on scenarios. There literally have been hundreds of first responders from throughout the nation and from different parts of the world who have participated in Urban Shield over the years. I quickly learned it was not just about the participating teams receiving valuable and real life training but also the 3,000 to 4,000 “behind the scenes” personnel who facilitated and managed the scenarios, area commands and the Emergency Operation Centers each year. These personnel include our local and regional emergency operations center managers, Chiefs of Police, Sheriffs, Fire Chiefs, medical and EMS professionals, Public Works personnel, communications specialist and many others. Their participation and cooperation in Urban Shield is what the exercise is all about, and vital to its success.
The Urban Shield planning team follows the ICS structure and we have all learned how to properly and efficiently respond to and manage a critical incident or catastrophic event in our region. All of our section chiefs and designees have been updated and trained on the Incident Command System (ICS), Standard Emergency Management System (SEMS) and the presidential directive known as the National Incident Management System (NIMS).
Urban Shield requires the collaboration of many outside agencies, our private/public partners and many, many volunteers to be a successful. But it especially demands the skilled and energetic engagement of Alameda County Sheriffs’ Office personnel who step forward year after year pouring countless hours into the Urban Shield planning and preparation process. The effort is worth it.
Urban Shield has made me a better manager. I am very comfortable representing my agency as an incident commander or agency liaison during a real world event. I am more confident in knowing that my peers from throughout the region better understand each other and are better prepared to respond to a critical incident or major disaster. Many of us are on a first name basis, and I am certain the shared experience of Urban Shield has helped break down the narrow-minded mentality of “this is my equipment not yours.” I have developed friendships and positive working relationships through my experiences with Urban Shield and I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with a tremendous group of people. I have a minimum of 10 more years with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and I look forward to continued friendships and positive working relationships. I know that partly because of these relationships, our region, and the communities we took oaths to “protect and serve”, can expect a unified response to large-scale incidents by agencies who have shared experience with equipment, technology and the same universal training.
One of the more humorous analogies I have heard describing the Urban Shield planning process is that it’s like trying to plan and coordinate between 30 and 40 weddings to be held on the same weekend. No one really cares what happens behind the scenes as long as they enjoy themselves at the wedding. Maybe. But as I enter my sixth year of participation in the Urban Shield exercise, I think the opposite is true. With Urban Shield, the journey is the destination.
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