The pager went off on a January Friday night at 2130. A call to dispatch revealed a double homicide and barricaded gunman in a remote village. Team members jumped into cruisers and drove 60 miles to O’Neill Aviation in Anchorage, AK. The team boarded a 14 passenger turbo-prop, flew two hours west to Aniak, where members were loaded onto a ski-equipped Cessna 185, three per trip. Another 20 minutes of flying brought the team to Red Devil, where the ski plane landed by the lights of a snomachine (snow mobile) parked at the end of the runway. Team members and gear were loaded onto sleds and snowmachines for the ride to the school, which was the command post for the operation. The first operators were on the ground four hours after being paged, ready to assist the two local troopers who had earlier flown in. It took another two hours to get the rest of the team and gear in place. It was 56 below zero.
The above incident took place in 1985. While not an every-day situation, it’s not unusual. The Alaska State Troopers SERT (Special Emergency Response Team) operates in one of the world’s most expansive and most extreme environments.
The Thinnest Blue Line
The size of Alaska is incomprehensible to most who live “Outside.” Alaska is about 586,000 square miles; 10 times the size of Illinois, six times as big as California, more than twice as big as Texas – just picture being an Illinois State Police S.W.A.T. member, and responding to Denver, Duluth, Atlanta, Albany, or Albuquerque to handle a call. Until the mid-1980’s, Alaska had five (5!) time zones. It is 1,200 miles from Attu Island to Anchorage, but only 600 miles from Attu to Tokyo. The “Great Land” is policed by approximately 260 Alaska state troopers and 80 Division of Alaska Wildlife troopers; that’s about 1,776 square miles per trooper.
Now, compound the distance with weather. Alaska is not as harsh as some believe, but it can get cold. The coldest ambient air temperature I ever experienced was 74 below zero, in Tok. I also experienced 103 above in Fairbanks the following summer—a spread of 177 degrees. Wind can compound the cold by adding chill factor, so 100-below chill factors are fairly common on the west coast and on the North Slope, home of Alaska’s oil fields. Overcast days are common year ’round, and visibility may be too poor to allow flying. Southeast Alaska is the world’s largest temperate rain forest, and Ketchikan may get 200 inches of rain a year. Given these and other factors, SERT needs to be trained and equipped to operate in extreme weather, with poor or no communication, using a wide variety of transportation methods. It’s not a 30 minute response time in a patrol car!
Once SERT arrives at the scene, there may be no support- no lodging, no shelter, no food, no water, no electricity. The body requires a lot of water in extreme cold, and a lot of calories. Each trooper needs to carry water and high-calorie food just to keep warm. This subsistence load must be carried in addition to the fighting load each troop needs to accomplish the mission.
SERT was formed in 1975. A convicted criminal, Wayne Allen Hurley, assaulted a jail guard and escaped. Hurley fled to Chitina, a rugged area 300 miles east of Anchorage. Troopers equipped themselves with shotguns, military surplus carbines, a Thompson submachine gun, bolt-action rifles, and went on the hunt. Hurley escaped and was at large for 10 years, and the operation showed the need for better-trained and properly equipped troopers.
Initially, two five-man teams were formed, one in Anchorage and one in Fairbanks. The department turned to the incomparable LAPD S.W.A.T. for initial training, which was conducted in Anchorage. Ten M16A1 rifles were purchased, S&W Model 19 revolvers were used, along with Remington 870 shotguns and assorted bolt-action sporting rifles, pressed into service as counter-sniper rifles. By 1980, the teams had grown to 10 men each; selection was casual, based on military background, shooting ability, interest, and reputation. There was considerable latitude in weaponry, with personally owned semi-auto pistols (usually Colt 1911s) and the odd submachine guns—Thompsons, M3A1 “Grease Guns”, S&W 76’s, and Mac10’s—all seeing duty. NFDs (Noise Flash Devices) were unknown, gas was delivered with single-shot 37mm guns or by hand, and explosive breaching was practiced with homemade shaped charges made of det cord and styrofoam.
SERT suffered its only casualty on 19 May 1984, when Trooper Troy Duncan was killed at Manley Hot Springs. Duncan was killed while apprehending a multiple-homicide suspect; the suspect was killed by another trooper. In honor of Troy Duncan, the SERT team today wears an insignia above the name tag on the right side of the chest- “Duncan’s Bones,” an Alaska State Trooper badge over crossed rifles. Troy’s initials, TLD, also grace the SERT challenge coin.
A Modern, Elite LE Unit
The SERT of 2008 is a far cry from that of 1975. SERT today consists of three teams—the Anchorage area, Fairbanks, and a third team in Soldotna, on the Kenai Peninsula. Unlike the old days, where the teams were semi-autonomous, all three teams are coordinated by Lt. Randy Hahn. Lt. Hahn ensures cohesive training, equipment, physical standards, and SOP’s. Each team is commanded by a lieutenant and consists of varying numbers of members. Two of the teams are authorized a strength of 14 members and the third team has an authorized strength of 22 members. Team members are selected, after application, based on physical fitness tests, psychological tests, an oral board, and other factors. They are brought onto the team for training and a probationary period of one year before full membership. SERT is in addition to regular duty assignments, so members are drawn from patrol, narcotics, investigations, municipal agencies, state Airport Police, and some federal officers.
Transportation for SERT can take many forms. Each trooper is allowed to use his take-home patrol car for personal use—this allows faster response time, as personal SERT gear is carried in the cars at all times. Team gear, such as tents, sleeping bags, heavy armor, breaching equipment, etc. is carried in heavy-duty, one-ton vehicles with large utility boxes that are left at each detachment SERT locker. These vehicles were also designed to be suitable for the deployment of an entry element from the rear box area, and can be transported by C-130, if necessary. The individual trooper can respond to a rally point for further instructions and to use other transportation options, depending on the situation. Boats, both river and sea-going, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, snomachines, ATV’s, and 4×4 trucks are all used. Back in the 1980’s, a former paratrooper proposed jump training for all SERT members—big state, lots of airplanes—but the idea never got off the ground.
Weapons: High Quality and Uniform
Weaponry is consistent with most teams today. The Glock 22 .40 caliber pistol is standard issue. The basic rifle is the Colt AR-15A3 carbine, equipped with the SureFire Millennium M500B forend light and Trijicon ACOG optics. VangComp 14.5-inch Model 870 shotguns are standard issue. Counter-sniper rifles are Remington LTR rifles with McMillan stocks and H.S. Precision magazine conversion kits, chambered in .308, with Nightforce optics. The teams are also equipped with HK MP5-40 submachine guns, outfitted with SureFire fore end lights and Trijicon Reflex sights, assigned primarily to entry personnel. Certified police K9s are integrated into operations and regularly train with the teams.
All teams are equipped with both 12 ga. and 37mm less-lethal projectiles, consisting of direct-impact beanbag and indirect-impact rubber and wooden baton rounds. These are deployed from dedicated 12 ga. shotguns, single-shot 37mm launchers and 37mm multi-launchers. The teams carry a variety of 12 ga. and 37mm chemical munitions, including blast-dispersion, barricade penetrating, liquid, powder, CS, OC and combination products. These same variations are carried in the form of grenades. The NFD of choice for the teams is the CTS Model 7920 single-use version. The individual team members are all issued Tasers as part of their personal equipment. One of the teams currently has certified explosive-breaching personnel, and the department is evaluating a proposal to integrate and implement explosive breaching capabilities into all three teams. The department recently acquired a Vanguard MK2 robot, courtesy of a federal grant. The guns need to operate, all of the time, in the cold: They are often cleaned and left “dry” for the winter, so the oil won’t freeze. Troopers carry a variety of knives for typical uses.
Unique Missions Require Unique Gear
Clothing is typical for the basic SERT operation. Camouflage BDU’s are used in most situations. Overwhites are used when needed. Gore-Tex rain gear is standard issue, with polypropylene undergarments and fleece being added for warmth. In sub-zero cold, SERT relies on down-filled “fat boy” pants, vapor-barrier (“bunny boots”) boots, down parkas and mittens. Military tests showed that combat effectiveness ends after two hours exposure in 20-below temperature, so SERT has to hump down sleeping bags for the snipers to crawl into in cold weather. The sporty part can be shedding all of this heavy, bulky clothing before making entry into a house!
That’s the mission statement for these SERT operators: Take a “normal” S.W.A.T. call, dress for 50 below zero, travel 1,000 miles, carry all you need for several days, have no communication, no close medical facilities—and get ’er done. Check out “The Frozen Chosen” at alaskastatetroopers.com.
The pager went off on a January Friday night at 2130. A call to…
by Jeff Randall / May 1, 2008