October 17, 1989, 5:04 p.m.: Baseball fans were watching the start of Game 3 where both of the San Francisco Bay Area’s MLB teams met to play in the ’89 World Series. Many of those who weren’t at the game were released from work early to watch the game at home. Regardless of where they were, those in the Bay Area have never forgotten the 15 seconds when the earth violently shifted along the San Andreas fault. Law enforcement and emergency responders who still serve, recall the chaotic aftermath.
The Loma Prieta earthquake measured 7.1 on the surface wave magnitude scale. It killed 63, injured 3,757 and left an estimated 10,000 homeless. It was the first major earthquake televised live to a national audience. Images of a collapsed double-decker portion of Interstate 880 later revealed the highest concentration of fatalities; 42 crushed in their vehicles on the lower deck. Had not the game attracted so many away from rush-hour traffic, injuries and deaths would have been higher.
The Big One
“We’re still waiting for it,” says Capt. J.D. Nelson of Alameda County. “The Big One” can come at anytime and only a few of us who were in uniform in ’89 are still on duty today. I remember what it was like afterwards. That was the beginning of my career.”
TV provides a gruesome reality check of how fragile our way of life is. Natural disasters continue to stress law-enforcement resources. Floods, hurricanes, wild fires, and earthquakes sweep the national media. In 2006, Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern acted on this fact by planning Urban Shield 2007. “The last major disaster in this area was the earthquake in 1989. We’ve been lucky. The next Big One could be right around the corner.”
Urban Shield 2008
Twenty-four tactical teams, 24 scenarios—50 hours, nonstop. Urban Shield is a comprehensive exercise designed to test and evaluate the physical and critical thinking abilities of emergency responders to address real-life scenarios. Urban Shield 2008 is being called the “single largest homeland security training exercise of its kind in the United States.”
More than 2,000 LE and government personnel received emergency response and management training during the course of this year’s event. Using planning and intelligence-gathering techniques, scenarios were designed for realism. Ahern adds, “We have chosen specific locations that replicate identified problem areas and Tier 1 critical infrastructure sites within the greater San Francisco Bay Area.” Tactical teams are faced with hostage rescue, industrial sabotage, dynamic entry, active shooters, EOD, maritime interdiction and various types of terrorism while learning how well they can operate after extreme physical exertion without rest for more than two days.
The teams will go through all of the same scenarios but at different times of day. As the exercise continues, fatigue will play a more important role as teams try not to cut corners. During the exercise, three medical checkpoints were spaced out evenly in the schedule to ensure the safe condition of each participant.
To complete any given exercise, teams had to successfully demonstrate their abilities as a team using Level C personal protective equipment, ballistic protection, global positioning and tracking, wireless video, protective respiratory systems, armored vehicles, and electronic targeting systems. After each mission was complete, teams were debriefed and evaluated by members of the FBI, U.S. Air Marshals, Israeli National Emergency Management Authority, tactical personnel from various LE agencies, as well as combat veterans from the U.S. Navy SEALs and Australian SAS.
Many of these agencies will never be faced with a situation where boarding a ship is required, but each event is designed to simulate an actual crisis in recent history and to help teams think outside their normal operation, ready to overcome any crisis.
“There’re hostages inside this university building,” reports an Urban Shield evaluator. “We also know there were shots fired on the fourth floor and terrorists have gathered students to different locations within the building. Here is a floor plan…”
Just as the team leader for the FBI’s elite HRT (Hostage Rescue Team) receives the map, the deafening crack of a grenade is heard coming out of a door near the fourth floor stairwell. These agents have no time to plan their entry. “Go, go, go,” screams the team leader. The FBI’s team sprinted up the four flights of stairs on an outside ladder-well before gaining entry with their M4 FX rifles. This exercise proved tough, considering this same team completed a rigorous 11-mile hike through the rural mountains just a few hours earlier. After engaging terrorists down a hall, they are forced to make a decision as they see one run up an inside stairwell and hear screams coming from lower levels. It takes the team of eight just over 16 minutes to clear the entire building from top to bottom. “When they got to the lower level, they came upon an auditorium where a terrorist was holding a number of hostages in a dark room. Silhouetted by a movie running, they managed to identify and take out the terrorist at the front of the room. It was a good move, because a pair was waiting to ambush them as they entered at the back of the classroom. “This is one of the best performances we have seen all day,” said an evaluator.
When Alameda County Police special operations arrive to a port in Oakland, they are confronted with a docked MPS (Maritime Prepositioning Ship) connected to the pier with a gangway. Issued M4s and Sig Sauer P226 sim guns, they check each other’s equipment before being briefed. They learn that terrorists have captured information crucial to national security and are trying to send it through a laptop in the ship’s comm room. Having never worked with a full-scale vessel before, they learn that most comm rooms on a ship are located in the same place. “Look for the antennas and comm equipment coming out of the roof of the room,” says an advisor from the U.S. Navy’s Dev Group. “Don’t get bogged down trying to clear every stateroom. If a door is open and you can do a quick check, do it but don’t let it bog you down from completing your mission.”
An active refinery in the Bay Area shows officers that earpieces and comm won’t always be effective. The loud noises of machines override their ability to communicate verbally and each team is forced to read each other’s hand and arm signals, before terrorists sabotage the industrial operation. At the Oakland airport, a hijacked aircraft is the scene for a beheaded hostage and an officer down. The S.W.A.T. team from Boston PD demonstrated good use of tactics and judgment as they rescued and evacuated the downed officer, before rolling up in a heavily armored vehicle to a Boeing aircraft and gain entry through the rear. MP5s delivered accurate firepower—putting an end to the situation.
Many SRUs (special response units) in the Bay Area came into being after the Berkeley Riots protesting the Vietnam War in the early ’70s. An SRU provides specialized support in any given situation wherein the capabilities of a tactical team are necessary to conduct operations in a high-risk environment. Bay area tactical teams are normally given missions in conjunction with other units that are committed to an incident. Call-outs for an SRU occur when authorities have determined that conventional agency resources are inadequate for the given situation.
“It is critically important that we train together and expand regional collaboration, testing our abilities over a broad spectrum of disciplines and incident scenes. The more we work together and identify areas for improvement, the better prepared we are to serve our communities,” Sheriff Ahern concluded. By participating in Urban Shield, departments are better prepared to serve as first responders to natural disasters or an act terror.
October 17, 1989, 5:04 p.m.: Baseball fans were watching the start of Game 3…
by Kevin Davis / Jan 16, 2009