In case of emergency: Urban Shield 2018

By Jules Bernstein

Photography By Austin Fausto

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Here’s the scenario: an anti-government extremist is arrested on a no-bail warrant for driving with a suspended license. His friends meet and decide to issue their own no-bail warrant for a citizens’ arrest of the judge who ordered their friend’s arrest. The judge fails to arrive at work.

A reliable informant tips off Livermore police that the judge is being held at a compound on the Sandia campus. You and your team have exactly 70 minutes to get as much information as you can about what’s happening and safely diffuse the situation. Go.

This was the challenge facing this year’s Urban Shield participants. The emergency response exercise is part training and part competition among 35 local, state, national and international SWAT teams. This year’s exercise included groups from Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Las Vegas and the California Highway Patrol, along with 31 Bay Area SWAT teams.

Over the course of 48 hours, teams rotated continuously through each of 35 simulated emergency events at locations spread throughout the Bay Area.

John Norden, Sandia California’s emergency management coordinator, said Urban Shield is a test of stamina, coordination skills and the ability to think on one’s feet.

“The ability to make important decisions has to be as strong at hour 42 of this exercise as it was in the first hour. Hostage negotiations can take a long time, and responders need to be ready the entire time,” he said.

The scenario was inspired by real-world events. On Jan. 2, 2016, armed militants seized the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon and occupied it until law enforcement made a final arrest 40 days later. The leader of the occupation, Ammon Bundy, had participated in a 2014 standoff at his father's Nevada ranch. Other members of the group were loosely affiliated with anti-government militias and the Sovereign Citizen movement, whose members believe they are not bound by government authority, including courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments or police.

This is the third consecutive year Sandia has hosted a scenario in the Labs’ community emergency response team fire yard. Urban Shield presented a multilayered training exercise to enhance the skills and abilities of regional first responders, as well as those responsible for coordinating and managing large-scale events. Urban Shield is intended to stretch regional resources so that limits can be identified, while expanding regional collaboration and building positive relationships.

Urban Shield challenges all who participate. It not only improves regional disaster response capabilities, but provides a platform for national and international first responders and the private sector to work efficiently and effectively together when critical incidents occur.

Coordinating with local law enforcement is especially useful for Sandia’s Protective Force, according to Norden. “Urban Shield is important for building relationships so that we have a

better idea how to work together in case of a real emergency,” he said.

This year, event observers named the Las Vegas SWAT team as the top response organization, followed by the Oakland and San Francisco police teams in second and third place, though all teams showed a high level of preparedness.

In addition to the important coordination and response work, the many volunteers who act as victims help make the scenarios feel more realistic. Anyone who wishes to participate in future exercises should contact Norden or members of the emergency management team.

The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s team devises their mission plan.

The Contra Costa County Sheriff's team devises their mission plan.

The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s team prepares for the drill.

The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s team prepares for the drill.

Emergency responders perform safety checks ahead of the exercise.

Emergency responders perform safety checks ahead of the exercise.

Berkeley police approach the hostage area.

Berkeley police approach the hostage area.

A shooter preps for the next arriving responder team.

A shooter preps for the next arriving responder team.

Rescued hostages wait in the BearCat armored vehicle.

Rescued hostages wait in the BearCat armored vehicle.

Exercise observers stand in the safe zone.
Exercise observers stand in the safe zone.