Preparing for the worst

October 29, 2013

Oakland, California

By Stephen Lam

When the sounds of the first simulation went off in the distance and victims started screaming, it was game on.

While at a wedding rehearsal last week, I received a call from my editor to cover Urban Shield, a large-scale, 48-hour preparedness exercise for first responders. With participants and observers attending from various states and countries, Urban Shield is in a sense the Super Bowl of preparedness exercise.

I knew I wanted to document the event when I heard that parts of it will be held at the recently closed eastern span of the former San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. So after a week of planning and anticipation, I was escorted first to an elementary school in Castro Valley to photograph an active shooter scenario. In a matter of minutes, a tranquil elementary school was transformed into a disaster scene with people role playing as victims, hostages and terrorists ran all over as SWAT team moved in to secure the area.

It was even more apparent that the planners wanted to make the scenarios as realistic as possible when I was brought to the aircraft interdiction scenario at a nearby airport. With armored cars, a cargo plane and simulated explosives, it was as real as one can imagine. Though Urban Shield was only an exercise and not a tactical competition amongst the teams, the tension and the high stress levels were very apparent in the eyes of each officer behind their mandatory protective masks.

Since bridges are high value targets in an urban environment, the training also included a series of mock terrorist attacks for both the police and rescue teams. SWAT teams were tasked with securing the scene while a hazmat team searched for radioactive materials from a stolen mail truck and urban search and rescue teams devised a plan to rescue a mock terrorist mannequin that was dangling on a rope off the side of the bridge.

Finally, I ended the day with a barricaded terrorist at a hospital before going back to the elementary school for one last time. Despite the fact that this was the 12th scenario out of a total of 36 scenarios the incoming team had to complete within 48 hours, the precision and speed that the teams displayed was nothing short of amazing throughout the entire day. I hope that there will not be any disasters like these in the Bay Area and beyond, but it’s a good feeling knowing that responders will be ready.

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