The challenges of Urban Shield: Sharpened skills, broadened minds

Urban Shield training in 2013 is designed to ensure our region remains better able to contend with the broad range of events we may face

Editor’s Note: The following article appeared in the 2013 Commemorative Edition Program distributed at the Final Exercise during Urban Shield 2013. This article is reprinted by permission of the hard-working and hard-charging organizers of Urban Shield 2013 as well as the great folks at Dolphin Graphics Design & Marketing, who produced last year’s magazine.

By Sheriff Gregory Ahern, Alameda County Sheriff’s Officer
Special Guest Contributor to PoliceOne

Each year we strive to improve this area’s ability to respond to critical events. Our training continues to focus on a multi-discipline response to a terrorist attack or natural disaster. A unified response will save lives and mitigate damage to the communities we serve. Urban Shield training in 2013 is designed to ensure our region remains better able to contend with the broad range of events we may face.

This year’s event will be separated into eight operational area commands. Within each of those commands, scenarios have been created to test the competencies of law enforcement tactical teams, fire teams, hazardous materials units, explosive ordinance disposal teams, water rescue and urban search and rescue units. Each training scenario is evaluated carefully to determine its “real-world nexus.”

With each annual version of Urban Shield, we add new elements so that participants not only sharpen their skills but broaden their minds. Our training program has proven to be beneficial to our local teams, our region, and our partners in the Boston area.

Mayhem In A Flash
The Boston Marathon is a huge event with 36,000 participating athletes and another 500,000 spectators and revelers. Marathon runners compete every year on Patriot’s Day, a state holiday in Massachusetts that commemorates the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. Locals call it “Marathon Monday.” It is a school holiday for many local colleges and a wonderful event that is viewed by people from around the world.

In a flash, on April 15, 2013, the celebration turned into mayhem. Pressure cooker bombs set off by terrorists unleashed a mass-casualty event and crime scene that required the swift and coordinated response of law enforcement, fire, explosive ordnance disposal teams and emergency medical personnel. This terrorist attack demanded the integrated efforts of local, state and federal agencies. In an instant, peoples’ lives were changed forever by the brutality of the act and trauma of the aftermath.

When an incident like this occurs, it is normal for people to be staggered, even paralyzed, by the speed at which events move. Of course, it is at exactly these times when first responders must slow down the action, think through decisions quickly but methodically, and bring to bear the resources required to meet the emergency. We know this is not easy to do. It takes training - a lot of training. It has been said the failure of September 11, 2001, was the failure of imagination. Our training must be creative and well designed.

Since its inception in 2007, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, along with our many first responder partners, has hosted the Urban Shield training exercise to better prepare our region for successful responses to any act of terrorism, major disaster or critical incident that demands a unified response. Together, we work to better prepare ourselves for the next unthinkable event.

Training Makes the Difference
The training continues to pay dividends. In 2011, the Urban Shield training exercise was expanded to include the city of Boston, and in 2012 it grew to include the city of Austin, Texas. In addition, Dallas, Texas, will be hosting an Urban Shield just weeks after our 2013 training exercise. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, the local emergency services leadership noted how Urban Shield training positively impacted the quality of their response.

“It made all the difference in the world in our response here,” Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis told the Congressional Homeland Security Committee. “People are alive today because of Urban Shield and the terrorism training the Department of Homeland Security provided to us. There is no doubt about that.”

The Boston bombing was one of a number of natural or man-made disasters to occur this past year. Analysis of each of these incidents provides us with insight into where we should invest our training efforts. Agencies across the country again were confronted with mass shootings. On December 14, 2012, a 20-year-old suspect fatally shot 20 children and 6 adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Before driving to the school, the suspect shot and killed his mother at their Newtown home.

It was the second deadliest mass shooting by a single person in American history, after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

While, in some parts of the nation, communities grappled with the destruction caused by deranged individuals, other communities faced the shock of a sudden accident, and still others dealt with the wide-spread devastation created by natural disasters of truly historic proportions. Each incident demonstrated the extreme range of possibilities for which we all must prepare for and emphasized the multiple skill sets we must identify and develop within our leadership and personnel.

On July 6, Asiana Airlines, Flight 214, was carrying more than 300 people when it crashed at San Francisco International Airport, tore off its tail and burst into flames. Two people died and hundreds were injured in the crash. Firefighters responding to the crash were faced with a chaotic scene, as some passengers and crew had been ejected from the aircraft when it broke apart and others were trapped aboard the burning aircraft.

In late August, California firefighters were confronted with the enormous, 400-square mile Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park. More than 3,700 firefighters responded to the area from all parts of the country. They fought hard to slow the advance of the blaze, which at one point threatened thousands of homes and critical infrastructure, including the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that supplies most of the drinking water for the city of San Francisco.

In September 2013, a mentally ill former Navy reservist, killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington D.C. This suspect opened fire from a balcony overlooking a sprawling cafeteria where employees were eating breakfast and drinking coffee. Confronted with a classic active-shooter scenario, initial responders were on scene and exchanging gunfire with the suspect within minutes of his first shots being fired. Subsequent responders quickly formed into teams and moved towards the sound of the shooting. They eventually located the suspect and ended the threat. This incident represents an example of the increasingly sophisticated threats that our first responders are forced to confront. The suspect apparently made detailed preparations in the days leading up to his attack and reportedly incorporated into the attack training he had received in the military.

In September 2013, authorities in Colorado were confronted with massive flooding, as more than 17 inches of rain fell on the city of Boulder in just over a week. The average rain fall in Boulder is 19.34 inches per year. The flooding over such a wide area of the state stranded hundreds of people and forced difficult and complex rescue operations.

As the waters receded, the dangers persisted and the nature of the operations changed. The flood left behind huge pools of standing water, and state health officials issued warnings of contamination from raw sewage and the possible release of chemicals from homes, businesses and industry.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association shut down nearly 1,900 oil and gas wells in flooded areas as a precaution. Colorado transportation officials reported that 400 lane-miles of state highway, and more than 30 bridges, were destroyed or deemed impassable. More than 600,000 residents in Boulder and Larimer Counties may have to wait throughout 2014 for roads in their communities to be permanently repaired.

On September 21, 2013, several terrorists believed to be linked to the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab killed at least 61 civilians and six security officers in an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Another 175 people were injured, including 60 that required hospitalization. The Al-Shabaab extremists stormed the mall throwing grenades and firing on civilians. This tragedy was a meticulously well-planned event, as the terrorists were able to fend off Kenyan security forces for four days.

A high-profile, soft target, the Westgate Mall was a place where both foreign residents and wealthy Kenyans felt safe to gather. According to several news sources, the militants specifically targeted “non-Muslims,” and at least 18 foreigners were among the dead, including six Britons, as well as citizens from France, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China. Five Americans were among the wounded.

History informs us that, each year, at different places across the country, incidents will occur that test our capabilities. We know, too, that we have an obligation to constantly prepare ourselves and improve. At Urban Shield, we do our best to test under pressure our law enforcement tactical teams, fire response teams, medical units, including our EMS partners, and our explosive ordnance disposal teams. It is our mission to ensure those participating in Urban Shield leave here better prepared to perform their duty and with a better understanding of what might come their way. Because, at the end of the day, when it comes to protecting our communities, we have the watch!

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