Nevada sheriff details challenges of preparing for “Storm Area 51”
Contingencies are being put in place if “Storm Area 51” does indeed bring a large influx of people, friendly or not, into this remote corner of Nevada
By Randall D. Larson
“Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us” is an event created on Facebook that is currently planned for September 20, 2019, at Area 51, the US Air Force facility within the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR). The highly secure site has long been considered a crucial spot for UFOlogists, and the event purports to raid the site “in search of extraterrestrial life.”
While the event was created as a comedic stunt, according to its originator, local first responders are taking it seriously and planning for public safety if a large number of people descend in the area in response to the event, which has prompted two related music festivals to be held in the area at the same time.
Area 51 is within Lincoln County, the southeastern most county in Nevada. Sheriff Kerry Lee has been with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department for 30 years, and has been its sheriff for 13 of them, currently serving his fourth term. PoliceOne spoke with Sheriff Lee about how this event is affecting public safety in his county and what contingencies have been put in place if “Storm Area 51” does indeed bring a large influx of people, friendly or not, into this remote corner of Nevada.
PoliceOne: When you first heard about “Storm Area 51,” how seriously did you take it? at what point did you begin to realize you should develop a response plan?
Sheriff Kerry Lee: It was texted to me one evening in late July. My first reaction was to laugh! But within about a week it started blowing up, and the more it did, the more we realized this could be something bigger than we thought. With two events that are going to correspond with the possible trespassing onto the Nevada Test and Training Range, we started thinking this could be something serious.
Has your agency handled large events like this in the past?
We’ve had some things that were similar to it. A few years ago, we had a guy who set off some car bombs and leveled part of a neighborhood. We had a multi-agency response of probably 100 officers from different federal, state and local agencies here during the initial response. We’ve had some large search and rescue events, which have helped us prepare, but I don’t think anything has prepared us for where we’re at now, with such a large-scale event with probably more than 300 first responders.
What steps did you take to preplan for that?
We divided it up: I took the law enforcement and the communications side of it, the County Emergency Manager took the fire and EMS side, and we just started trudging ahead. It’s now two weeks until the event and we’re actually calling in outside personnel to help us finish it all off. We’re bringing in resources through the state Division of Emergency Management. There are going to be boots on the ground the week or so before the event to actually get our plan into action.
What mutual aid resources will be assisting?
Nevada is a fairly large state but only has 17 counties; comparative to some that are out there, our counties are quite large. Lincoln County is 11,000 square miles, neighboring Nye County is 18,000 square miles. My population is fairly small for those 11,000 square miles, but with the amount of distances we have and the lack of resources throughout the state, it’s pretty much all hands-on deck.
Other sheriffs reached out to us and asked what they can do to help. The Nevada Department of Public Safety (DPS) Investigation Division was one of the first to reach out and they’re bringing in a lot of officers, and Las Vegas Metro PD, which is 4,000-5,000 officers strong, has just reached out to provide some of the specialized resources and command staff we may need. So far, it’s been pretty amazing seeing the mutual aid support from the other counties.
What are the logistical challenges of such an event in your area, such as road access, hospital/healthcare access, and other resources?
Huge! Our logistics officer is probably going to be the most needed person – that’s why we’re bringing him in next week. We’re pre-positioning something like 4,000 gallons of fuel, pre-positioning water, bringing in a mobile kitchen to supply 300+ meals for three to four days, so it is definitely a huge challenge. Food, water, shelter, fuel – all that stuff has to be brought out here because there are no services.
What about EMS services?
A private EMS provider from Las Vegas will be providing EMS plus supplementing our county EMS for transport to Las Vegas. When the nearest hospital is 60 miles away one direction, and Las Vegas is 150 miles another direction, you realize it’s a long way to get medical attention. They’re going to be setting up some medical tents out in Rachel to be able to treat minor issues on scene.
Unlike relatively crowd-friendly music festivals or events like Burning Man, you’re also faced with the concept that “Storm Area 51,” by its very name, might include some aggression. What’s your take on that possibility?
We are planning contingencies that if it does turn bad, we are prepared to respond to that as well. We don’t want to begin responding to that off the bat; we want it to be a friendly event. We want it to be non-confrontational. But if it does turn to that, we’re prepared to call in other resources that will be staged to help us deal with those issues.
What kind of overtime costs will be incurred and how is that being funded?
Some of the first responders, mostly the law enforcement resources, are all mutual aid, so that cost is being borne by their agency. Whether they are able to seek reimbursement through the state emergency fund has yet to be seen, but some of these other things that are not mutual aid, such as the mobile food unit, the fuel, water, and some of the sanitation things we have to bring in, those are costs that will have to be borne by the county – and our county is in no condition to bear these kinds of costs. That’s why they signed an emergency declaration so they can hopefully tap into some state emergency funds for this.
How does your emergency declaration work when you’re planning for something before it happens? Might this be the same as for the East Coast planning for hurricanes?
You make a good point. What happens when they go and spend a bunch of money preparing for a hurricane and the hurricane doesn’t hit or it goes out to sea? They still spent the money. That’s kind of where we are – this thing may not turn out to be anything; we may have 500 people show up and we’ll all laugh about it and send everybody home, but we just don’t know. If it’s possible that 5,000 or 50,000 show up, we’ve got to be prepared for it ahead of time. We’re spending those funds preparing for the possibility of that many people.
What kind of odd calls do you respond to on a normal basis related to people traveling to Area 51?
Mostly it’s trespassing. Sometimes there are suspicious people or people out camping where they don’t belong. There is also the illegal use of drones in the area. We do respond on a regular basis for people who opt to trespass onto the NTTR grounds, but nothing major. When we have dealt with people for trespassing, our officers haven’t been in any kind of altercations with them; they hand them a citation and they go on their way. Although this event, if a person chooses to trespass, they’re going to be arrested and transported to a booking facility located near the event to be processed there.
What kind of interaction, if any, does your agency have with the military in Area 51 as far as their being involved in this event?
Everything on the inside is the military’s responsibility, so that would have to be up to them. We do not mess with that. We deal with the boundary issues, but we do work closely with our partners there and have a good relationship with them.
In terms of communications, what kind of comm plan are you dealing with for event?
We’re bringing in a communications officer along with the logistics officer. It’s not only a desert out here but it’s a desert of communication. Rachel itself [the closest habitation to the Nellis Air Force Range and Area 51] has a small degree of Verizon communications, but the problem is, if we get that many people then the system is going to be overwhelmed in a hurry. That area only has one sheriff’s repeater, so we’re in the process of adding repeaters, both mobile and mountaintop. Verizon has been a great partner in this, and they’re going to bring in some temporary equipment to help us communicate. We’re going to have liaisons with each agency in the incident command center, so if it comes to it, we’ll communicate to that liaison and that liaison will, in turn, communicate with his or her agency.
Has there been a consideration to bring in tactical dispatchers to help with the communications area?
Yes. They’re actually bringing in four dispatchers, two for each shift. I’ll have additional dispatchers from DPS in my dispatch center in Pioche just to answer 911 calls. They’re also bringing in additional dispatchers from DPS to cover each 12-hour shift in the incident command center, which will handle communications for the incident itself.
What about traffic control if you get a large number of people driving through the area?
That has the possibility of being a major issue. We’ve got a two-lane highway that’s built for a certain amount of people and if we get 10,000, 20,000, or even just 5,000 extra people, these roadways are not designed to move that many people that quickly. Nevada Highway Patrol (NHP) is bringing in almost 40 troopers just to work Lincoln County, keeping traffic moving and dealing with accidents and what-have-you. Even though NHP may be handling the calls, the 911 calls still come to my dispatch center so that’s why we’re adding people here.
How has the mythology of Area 51 that’s grown over the years affected public safety here in Lincoln County?
That’s the lore that brings some people here, and it’s been bringing them here for years. When I was first here, people would come out to trespass or to look at the skies at night because of whatever they believed might be out there. Then Google Earth came along and pretty quick everybody can see what’s out there – not inside the buildings of course, but they can see the runways and the structures – so a little bit of that secrecy was lost. The people are still coming, whatever their beliefs are, and I don’t have a comment one way or the other on that. It is what it is. We’re tasked to deal with it, and we’ll deal with it.
About the author
Randall D. Larson retired after 20 years in public safety communications, serving as a shift supervisor, trainer and field communications supervisor for the San Jose (Calif.) Fire Department. Larson was also the editor of 9-1-1 Magazine from 1995 to 2009 and its online version from 2009 to 2018. He currently resides among the northern California Redwoods writing in a number of fields of interest.