Photographers' Blog

Preparing for the worst

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.

The SWAT of Salt Lake

Draper, Utah

By Jim Urquhart

It was four in the morning and for the second day in a row I found myself on the highway headed for a photo assignment before the sun rose. Still a bit tired and sore from the day before, I was however in a decent mood. The day before at the same hour I was trying to get to the start line of the Salt Lake City Marathon in the pouring rain, sleet and hail. On that morning I was assigned to photograph security efforts at the marathon, the first since the Boston Marathon bombing.

That day I covered prevention, this morning I was covering the team that are called in to help when the situation has already gone bad. The Salt Lake City Police Department SWAT team was going to be running candidates through an obstacle course as part of a test of physical fitness.

It was day one of the department’s SWAT school. Candidates spent the next six days participating in exercises designed to educate and test their physical abilities along with their decision-making skills in stressful situations.

Soccer SWAT team

By Peter Andrews

Through my Polish police contacts, I learned that members of various SWAT teams and the border guards would hold a special training exercise in the town of Zamosc. The exercise was conducted as part of preparations by the Polish special forces leading up to the EURO 2012 soccer tournament, to be held in Poland and Ukraine this summer. This training event was to be observed by various representatives from different countries.

As I arrived at the military training ground, I realized that some of the instructors were my old friends whom I have known for as many as eighteen years. It helped me immensely to be accepted by people who were being trained. The forces were divided into three teams of SWAT and border guards being trained on different public transport vehicles, in various techniques of approaching a hijacked bus followed by mastering the techniques of entering and rescuing hostages from inside the vehicle.

Witnessing dozens of similar exercises I’m always amazed by the speed and agility with which these men can move. It also helps me understand how much time, effort and dedication they have to invest to be able to work with such precision.

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