It could happen here

SWAT teams in Elk Grove! Dirty bombs in darkened theaters! Welcome to the brave new world of simulated disaster.

A SWAT officer is ready for simulated action.

A SWAT officer is ready for simulated action.

The first reports came through dispatch: “Battalion command, we’re getting multiple reports of multiple victims involved.”

Inside a cavernous room, an oddly sweet, gray smoke drifted over a half-dozen bodies strewn across the floor. The smoke drifted out into the lobby, where more bodies reclined, some of them lying peacefully, hands clasped across their bellies as if in meditation. The bodies all wore cards identifying them as deceased, unconscious or a member of the walking wounded. One casualty jerked around uncomfortably, bumping his legs against the floor; he wore the strained look of a kid trying not to laugh.

The Cosumnes River College students had agreed to act as victims during a three-day training exercise, to help first responders deal with a simulated dirty-bomb attack in a crowded movie theater. The site where they lay was really just an empty office building in an Elk Grove business park, but it was a large enough and realistic enough setting to provide approximately 150 professionals opportunities to practice identifying weaponized agents in the air, removing the deceased, treating the walking wounded and handling any surprises the drill’s managers threw in.

Though this exercise and other local ones have been much smaller in scope than the federal terrorism drills that took place this spring in Seattle and other cities, they’ve had the same goal: to test and stress the skills of first responders like the Elk Grove and Sacramento police and fire departments, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, SWAT teams, the FBI, hostage-negotiation teams, regional-transit staffs and hazardous-materials teams. Such simulations also have given these agencies real-life opportunities to cooperate. The desire for more communication and cooperation between traditionally autonomous agencies has been a goal since 9/11 and has led to the formation of inter-agency teams, such as the new Terrorism Early Warning Group. “The partnerships have always been around,” said Metropolitan Fire District Capt. Dave Stoddard. “Now, we know who we’re holding hands with.”

Terror simulations are rare, mainly because they take weeks of training and lots of staff, but they may be a sign of a growing trend in Sacramento. The existence of decommissioned military bases complete with dorms and dining halls, the possible level-4 biosafety lab in Davis, and the decommissioned Rancho Seco power plant led the Sacramento Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution this February “in support of the establishment and promotion of the greater Sacramento area as a regional center for Pacific Rim/Western United States Homeland Security research, training and logistical activities.” Apparently, preparing for acts of terrorism has become big business since 9/11. The board resolution went on, pledging to “support the staff efforts to secure federal funding for up to $60 million for the build-out of the McClellan and Rancho Seco campus for the Northern California Regional Public Safety Training College.”

Paul Hahn, director of the Sacramento County Department of Economic Development, said that California congressmen Robert Matsui and Doug Ose already have requested approximately $16.8 million in federal funds to support “Project Home Star,” the effort to build the training campuses. Hahn envisions a facility that offers physical training, bioterrorism training and opportunities to practice simulated attacks, including attacks at a nuclear power plant.

“It’s one thing to do a tabletop exercise, and another to go into the field,” said Hahn.

In the Elk Grove simulation, one firefighter began unrolling emergency tape while another approached a small tangle of walking wounded, who charged forward in simulated panic, moaning, their arms lifted like zombies from Day of the Dead. In spite of their comical performances, the panicked victims were treated like real threats to the firefighters, who knew ahead of time that the pretend bomb had carried some kind of weaponized biological agent.

“What happened in there?” the firefighter asked. He was overwhelmed with responses.

“You, stop,” he commanded one person, backing up slowly and putting out his hand in warning. “You, talk to me,” he said, pointing to another.

When the going gets tough, the police department’s weapons-equipped, video-transmitting robot gets going.

“Why isn’t anybody doing anything?” cried another victim.

On the firefighter’s command, the walking wounded followed the emergency tape through quickly erected showers of PVC pipe. Then, they entered tents, stripped off their watches and other possessions and were scrubbed down in more showers. From there, they proceeded, “clean,” to a treatment center for minor injuries. In real life, a convoy of buses and ambulances would have waited on the other side of the assembly line to spirit the victims away to hospitals.

Kristyn Staby, public-information officer for the Elk Grove Community Services District, watched as the unconscious victims were lowered into kiddie pools to be scrubbed off, as well.

Along with unconscious victims and victims who charged firefighters, Staby said responders had to deal with all kinds of surprises and challenges. They even had to keep working while a simulated press corps aggressively pressed them for information.

“Yesterday, there was a beam collapse that required technical rescue inside the theater,” said Staby. “Until they closed the air space, they were going to propose that two media helicopters collided above. They’re coming up with some wild stuff.”

To handle the most important unknown, a hazardous-materials (or hazmat) team discussed its strategy in front of a high-tech trailer that acted as the team’s mobile lab. Inside, charts, books, chemical tests and other tools would help the experts identify potential biological weapons through symptoms and the time it took those symptoms to emerge. Even as the sweet, gray smoke was drifting out of the theater, into the lobby and out into the neighborhood, those on the hazmat team were preparing a plan of attack that would allow them to enter the building, remove any casualties, identify the chemical agents present and protect themselves from any danger. In the case of a real emergency, they would be the only ones allowed to enter the “hot zone.”

While Elk Grove agencies practiced cleaning up after a dirty bomb (a simulation that cost Staby’s department approximately $10,000), the Sacramento Regional Transit (RT) District prepared for a second simulation, this one paid for by a grant from the Federal Transit Administration. The grant required one exercise that included an act of terrorism, so RT security officers invited police and sheriff’s departments to the hijacking of an RT train.

Jo Noble, a representative of RT, explained that, to minimize disruption, the exercise was held at the Meadowview Station, which wasn’t yet open for use. Three pretend terrorists captured five hostages before the FBI, SWAT and hostage-negotiation teams arrived. As in Elk Grove, various monkey wrenches were thrown into the works to surprise and test those involved. When the hijackers’ cell phone went dead, the police department’s weapons-equipped, video-transmitting, high-tech robot delivered a new phone so negotiations could continue.

Such challenges gave first responders a chance to practice using their tools and tricks, but it also gave them a chance to identify weaknesses.

On the final day of the Elk Grove exercise, Staby kept her eyes on a large tin that had been set inconspicuously next to a tree near the medical treatment center. It waited there all morning, undetected.

“The reality for all responders,” said Staby, “is that there could be a secondary device.”

The tin had been planted as a second bomb. A third, said Staby, had been planted in a toolbox next to the curb where the walking wounded originally had sat. The victims had spotted it before law-enforcement officials had, but Staby explained that law enforcement hadn’t been able to spare enough personnel to participate fully in the exercise that day. Normally, they would have been sweeping the property constantly.

Though first responders hope their anti-terrorism skills will never be needed, a thwarted attack on Elk Grove’s Suburban Propane tanks last year did trigger some discussions about how to protect the citizenry better, said Staby.

“It just goes to show," she added, "that it can happen in your own backyard."