Urban Shield 2010: The future of preparedness planning and evaluation

Already one of the top SWAT exercises in the world, Urban Shield has become a national template to evaluate regional public safety preparedness

The San Francisco Bay Area Urban Shield exercise — now in its fourth year — continues to gain national and international recognition as a model for testing and evaluating enhanced regional preparedness across all disciplines of public safety and major disaster response. This year, 29 teams participated, including three international teams — Israel, Jordan, and Bahrain — in what may one day soon become the model program for measuring the enhanced preparedness capabilities of any region in the United States. PoliceOne has learned that at least one major metropolitan area on the east coast is already seriously looking at hosting its own Urban Shield in the very near future.

The 2010 exercise focused on five overarching goals designed to strengthen preparedness in order 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. The goals for Urban Shield 2010 were to:

• Test communication and management capabilities with a focus on city and county Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs) throughout a five county area
• Integrate critical infrastructure and onsite private security personnel into a collaborative response framework to test public/private sector response plans and unified response
• Evaluate regional fire, search & rescue, and HAZMAT response with a focus on core competencies and integration with SWAT operators
• Evaluate regional EOD teams’ core competencies and response capabilities
• Evaluate regional capabilities to effectively identify, integrate and manage volunteers responding to large scale disasters

Above, Fremont (Calif.) SWAT respond to a workplace violence / active shooter scenario on the 44th floor of the Pyramid Center (nee, Transamerica Pyramid).  For added pucker factor, the team approached the floor via four-story rappel down an air shaft.  (PoliceOne Image)
Above, Fremont (Calif.) SWAT respond to a workplace violence / active shooter scenario on the 44th floor of the Pyramid Center (nee, Transamerica Pyramid). For added pucker factor, the team approached the floor via four-story rappel down an air shaft. (PoliceOne Image)

If you were to ask any of the participating operators, “What did you think of Urban Shield?” you would invariably get a reply along the lines of, “That was the best [bleeping] training I’ve ever done.” PoliceOne is confident in saying that because throughout the weekend, we heard operators tell evaluators exactly that as they left their debriefing rooms en route to their next exercise. In coming days, we’ll get deeper into the weeds on individual scenarios and officers’ reactions, but for today, we want to focus on the high-level view.

Prior to the start of the event, PoliceOne sat down Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Assistant Sheriff Jim Baker — one of the key planners of this year’s exercise — to get an update on what’s new since the last time we covered the event in 2008. Now that all the teams have completed the 30 scenarios, we can reveal details of that conversation.

Take it to the Limit
“We’re definitely designed to stretch our regional resources to the limit,” Assistant Sheriff Jim Baker explained, “while expanding regional collaboration and building causal relationships. We want this to be an ass-kicker, an, ‘Oh my god we’re out of people, we’re out of assets, we’re out of everything,’ type of thing. It forces us to reach out and find other entities, it forces us to go find evaluators that are tactical… these might be police departments that normally don’t reach out, they just kind of do things themselves… but by doing that we get to know them, they get to know us, they come out and evaluate our guys, then they say, “You guys are doing something interesting — we don’t do it that way,’ and it almost forces the learning on them. So we’re regionalizing a lot of those types of thoughts, and there’s a reason why we do all that. As a result, about 4,000 people receive some kind of critical training and experience. Just some of those people involved, are CalEMA, FEMA, Coast Guard, National Guard, and FBI. And we really build in the local business and critical infrastructure in a big way.”

As an example, Baker pointed to the scenario planned for the iconic Pyramid Center that dominates the San Francisco city skyline. “We’ve met with the building managers, and asked, ‘What is your security protocol? What are you concerned about?’ So in this scenario, the tactical teams will marry up with the security — the protective people — and everyone will be evaluated. We’ll both sit down with the building itself after the fact and say, ‘OK, your plans say that if this scenario actually happened you would expect X to occur, and what we found out is that over the course of the exercise, Y occurred. Not only did we evaluate your people, but we evaluated your process, so you can change your policies, you can change your training, because you now know that that’s not actually going to happen. Cops are going to come in the back door, they’re going to ask you to get out of the way, they’re going to do this, and they’re going to do that. So now you know.”

Furthermore, the entire exercise operates under the principals of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS), thus testing the region’s abilities under those models. An Incident Command System (ICS) structure was used, with the Emergency Operation Centers in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Alameda Counties, as well as the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory functioning as the Area Commands and Department Operations Center (DOC).

The Hidden Training
The selected exercise sites address critical Bay Area infrastructure concerns, as well as regional tactical, medical, fire, and explosive ordnance response to critical incidents. Some of those included a juvenile facility that represented a Beslan-type school attack, the NUMMI Plant, representing a multi-building manufacturing facility, a water treatment plant, the Stanford National Accelerator Laboratory, a 12-screen Cineplex, the San Francisco MUNI municipal railway, and San Francisco City Hall among others.

As a consequence, not only have each of these teams had first-hand experience in working these scenes in practice, the planners have had many months to develop intelligence on those sites, establish relationships with security and other personnel at those places, and generally just increase the overall knowledge base with regard to preparedness and response to an emergency in such places.

People get to know and trust each other — they exchange contact information. “When something happens, we will know who to call, who has what we need, to address that situation,” said Baker. The development of those interpersonal relationships — and the high level of coordination that takes place among the participants in the planning phase — is one of the hidden jewels of Urban Shield.

When Something Breaks
During the 48-hour exercise it’s almost certain that something will break, or be found in a condition one might consider in operationally unusable. That’s the plan. Millions of UASI grant dollars are spent every year on pieces of equipment that end up effectively mothballed because no one wants to be the person who “broke it.”

“The federal government has people that go around every three years and they do an audit on assets. So if you have a file that says you spent $250,000 dollars on a piece of equipment — as long as you can show me the file that says you bought it, show me the receipt, yes you were paid for it by the federal government, as long as you can point to it. It can be in an old warehouse, it can be 40 rows back behind crates, it can have four flat tires and six inches of dust, but if you can show me the equipment exists, you bought it, you paid for it, you passed the audit… What good is that?

“What we do is, once we identify the capabilities we should have, once we identify the critical capabilities that we are concerned about — whether it be our drinking water, whether it be high rise buildings, active shooter on a school campus — once we identify those lists, then we say what capabilities should we have. well, we should be able to respond to bombs, we should be able to respond to active shooters, we should be able to respond to a chemical environment in our chemical suits, HAZMAT, things like that. What assets should we have, what assets do we have? That’s how we form our scenarios. It’s not just like, ‘Hey let’s do something cool!’”

Furthermore, at the start of the exercise — just as all teams are briefed and given their initial physical examinations and clearances to participate — a daylong vendor showcase offers a preview of the types of technology and tools that will be integrated into the scenarios. Throughout the following 48 hours, every team will test and evaluate dozens of pieces of gear from some of the top public safety manufacturers including Motorola, Safariland, US Night Vision, Sig Sauer, L3 Communications, MyClyns, and many others.

The teams — already pushing themselves to the limit — are encouraged to push this stuff to the limits too, getting it wet, dropping it, and generally using it as it would be used in the real world. The vendors can then make any adjustments to their designs as may be revealed in this testing, and the participants can go home and make informed recommendations about the types of technology and tools they want to see added to their wish lists in coming years.

After-Action Activities
Sometime following the conclusion of the exercise, Urban Shield planners will produce an in-depth After Action Report — what Baker and the folks at ACSO consistently call a Gap Analysis — that will assist the region in making equipment purchases for many years to come.

“The after action will again assist in prioritizing upcoming expenditures,” Baker explains. “We end up asking the question, ‘Who needs more equipment so that we can prioritize our spending in the future?’ We take that after-action report and we use to give our UASI region better intelligence on where we should be spending money in the future — where our priorities are.

In essence, Urban Shield provides an incredible insight into where there may be equipment shortfalls or where agencies can focus future efforts on applying for grant monies. Urban Shield basically enables administrators and other planners to have far better information to increase preparedness. It helps organizations achieve an objective assessment of capabilities so that strengths and areas for improvement are identified, corrected, and shared as appropriate prior to a real incident.

“It’s critical that we continue to expand regional collaboration and preparedness levels for all first responders. Testing our abilities over a broad spectrum of disciplines and scenarios within the confines of a coordinated training and exercise venue, we will be better prepared to address strategic, operational, technical, and tactical change,” Baker concludes.

More to Come...
Having personally witnessed a significant portion of the 48-hour continuous exercise — which was hosted by 19 agencies and held in more than two dozen locations throughout a 700 square mile swath of the Bay Area — PoliceOne can say without equivocation that the planners achieved those five goals mentioned at the start. We’re proud to have had the opportunity to have had so much access to so many elements of Urban Shield 2010.

Watch this space in coming days and weeks for much more coverage of Urban Shield 2010, including the video interviews we taped, tactical tips we gathered, and dozens of article leads we secured in our time observing some truly tier-one tactical teams from Northern California and beyond.

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