If you were to ask a person who has never participated in Urban Shield what they thought it is, you’d likely hear a reply like, “It’s that SWAT thing in California.”
While that statement is correct — it is, indeed, a “SWAT thing in California” — it’s not entirely complete.
In the five years I’ve attended and covered this event, every last participant with whom I’ve spoken has said nothing but great things about the SWAT training they receive. But Urban Shield is much, much more than “a SWAT thing.”
SWAT, and More Than SWAT
First, let’s address the SWAT component of this event. This year, 35 SWAT teams competed against each other to achieve the highest scores in three dozen training scenarios such as active shooter response, hostage rescue, and radiological device detection and disposal.
In this year’s competition, Berkeley (Calif.) Police Department’s SWAT team won it all, with Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in second and San Francisco PD in third. I would venture to say that while those three teams walked away with some hardware for the trophy case, every single team returned home with two things even more valuable: knowledge and experience.
Teams contended with challenges “ripped from the headlines,” fashioned after real-world events like the United States Embassy attack in Benghazi, the terrorist takeover of the In Amenas facility in Algeria, the 2012 Camp Liberty murders, the Navy Shipyard attack in September, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the tragic attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
It is the most grueling SWAT competition I know about — if a tougher one exists, I look forward to one day seeing it — so safety is of paramount concern. Site security and safety checks for volunteers and observers are the most stringent imaginable.
Medical checkpoints are spaced evenly over the 48-hour schedule, where the physical condition of every participant is verified good to go. In addition, Mobile Medical Checkpoints were on hand to go anywhere in the exercise for any team members who experienced medical issues.
It is also an amazing opportunity for dozens of equipment vendors to get their gear into the hands of some of the top SWAT teams in the country, telling them, effectively, “Use this in the upcoming scenario. Here’s how it works. Now go out there and see if you can break that thing, and when you’re done, tell us how you liked it (or didn’t).”
Urban Shield represents the future of preparedness planning and evaluation and has become a national template to evaluate regional public safety preparedness across and between disciplines. Urban Shield incorporates all of public safety — this year if you added fire and EMS teams together, they actually outnumbered SWAT teams — and tests every facet of an area’s emergency response capabilities.
An International Investment in Public Safety
Further, it’s not just a weekend event. Urban Shield is a year-long enterprise that culminates in a 48-hour exercise managed under the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS) protocols.
It’s an opportunity for local first responders to forge deep and lasting partnerships with management and working personnel at myriad potential targets in the area — from water treatment facilities to colleges to rail yards and oil refineries. In the planning process alone, these potential targets become hardened as the people on all sides become smarter about how to work together in an emergency.
Finally, Urban Shield is no longer “a California thing.” That’s probably the most interesting element to the whole — largely untold — story of Urban Shield. It is a repeatable model for first responder training that can be stood up just about anywhere, provided you’ve got the commitment and the capacity to pull it off (it does require thousands of hours of planning and preparation).
Boston has now held two Urban Shield exercises, and on the weekend of November 9-10, the first North Central Texas Urban Shield will take place. Boston is interesting in no small part because after the Marathon bombing in April, several elected officials and public safety leaders specifically credited Urban Shield with preparing their people for that prolonged, highly complex response.
Urban Shield is now an international event. In years past, I’ve watched SWAT teams from Bahrain, France, Jordan, and Israel compete. This year, a team from Brazil competed.
While attending about a dozen scenarios during the 2013 event, I ran into observers from around the country and around the world. Emergency management planners from Brazil were here, gathering information as they begin to plan their own Urban Shield event. I’m told Urban Shield is likely to be held in places like the Middle East and Africa in coming years.
Urban Shield is designed to strengthen an area’s preparedness for disaster — whether that be a natural disaster, a mass-casualty terrorist attack, or a lone gunman in an elementary school. The event is designed to get responders as ready as they can be to respond to — and prevent, to the extent possible — potential terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies requiring a multi-jurisdictional, multi-discipline response from public safety.
Urban Shield allows participating agencies a practical opportunity to evaluate their tactical team’s level of preparedness and ability to perform a variety of intricate first responder operations. This allows each participating agency to evaluate its own tactical capabilities while training together with EMS, fire, and EOD.
In the five years I’ve been privileged enough to be part of the exercise, I’ve regularly asked, “What did you think of Urban Shield?” I invariably get a reply along the lines of, “That was the best [bleeping] training I’ve ever done.”
Check out the video. Add your comments below. Stay safe out there, my brothers and sisters.