Thanks to the Alameda County (Calif.) Sheriff's Office (ACSO), I was privileged to observe Urban Shield 2009, an event the agency hosts each year. Twenty-seven SWAT teams, mostly from California but also from as far away as Boston and even France, were tested for 48-plus continuous hours by a series of 25 real-world, force-on-force scenarios.
Each scenario designed to test officers' tactical skills and teamwork to the limit was scored and timed, with points deducted for mistakes. Exercise #1, SWAT Fitness Assessment, tested the mettle of even those in "Super SWAT Shape."
Day 1 - Orientation Day
The large room was filled to overflow capacity - 200+ operators from 27 SWAT teams, their liaisons, support staff, observers. One thing's certain - that many SWAT personnel in one place is an impressive sight.
As I scanned the room, I tried to get a feel for what these competitors must be going through. On the surface, all appeared composed, ready - some serious, some relaxed, some talking and even joking with other competitors.
But underneath this calm surface, I could feel the undercurrent of competitive energy each of them would soon unleash over the next two days of the most challenging, grueling SWAT competition in existence.
They came not merely to compete, but to win. As a former SWAT sergeant, I'd competed or participated in countless missions, trainings, and competitions. So, I had a pretty good idea what was likely going through their minds as they listened attentively to the orientation instructions and rules.
This was the proverbial calm before the storm. A storm that would begin at 0600 the next morning and wouldn't end until 48+ continuous hours and 25 ultra-challenging scenarios later. Perhaps the most challenging test any SWAT team had ever faced.
They were fast approaching crunch time, and would soon know if all their hard work and preparation would pay off. Some undoubtedly had nagging questions - Are we ready? Am I ready? How good is the competition?
Soon, they'd all learn the answers.
Day 2 - Competition Begins
Of all 25 scenarios, the most daunting looking was exercise #1 - SWAT Fitness Assessment - at the host agency's Regional Training Center - one of the best LE training facilities I've ever seen. And as with all of the event's 25 exercises, this was exceptionally well planned and monitored.
Starting with barricade tape, those in charge restricted entrance to authorized, badged, screened personnel only: participants, monitors, and observers. This was the debut of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office's newly constructed 14-station Confidence Course. This course rivals any obstacle course anywhere - complete with a spectacular view of the surrounding California "hills."
By its very nature, SWAT requires officers to maintain a high level of fitness at all times. Coupled with months of training for Urban Shield, each of the 200+ participants were in superb condition rivaling that of any elite competitive athlete. And I guarantee all of them trained for months and were in the best shape of their lives.
However, they'd be facing perhaps the most daunting physical and mental challenge of their careers - a 48+ hour non-stop "gruelathon" of 25 tactical exercises.
Recognizing this, Urban Shield 2009 planners emphasized safety repeatedly and built in three mandatory medical checkpoints to ensure each participant was medically fit to continue the competition. This approach ensures the best possible medical outcome for participants.
Appropriately, each participant was mandated to undergo a medical evaluation at Exercise #1 - the most physically challenging of all 25 exercises. Each medical checkpoint was staffed by EMS/Fire medics, complete with on-site ambulance. These medics had the authority to pull anyone not passing medical evaluation from the competition - which would adversely affect the team's chances of placing.
Exercise #1 didn't end with the Confidence Course. Upon completion, all participants ran a challenging 3.1-mile run up and down hills. Then, the team had to pull one car by rope and push a second car uphill - each a designated distance.
As if this weren't enough, next came the log carry for a designated distance, also uphill. But Exercise #1 didn't stop there. Immediately afterward, the team had to run uphill to a timed and scored "Beam Hit" shooting scenario.
After each team completed Exercise #1, they moved on to the next tactical exercise, rotating until completing all 25 exercises - which ran non-stop for Urban Shield's entire 48+ hours. Depending on their designated rotation times, there were teams tackling Exercise #1 throughout the entire 48+ hour challenge - day and night.
I saw the first team go through Exercise #1, which made me curious to see how teams later in the rotation would compare after enduring hours of demanding competition. So I observed a number of teams at different times during the competition.
Talk about impressive - every team and members gave their fullest effort. It made no difference whether it was the beginning of day one, in the middle, or toward the end of the 48+ hours. Day and night, each and every team and all of its members were equally competitive, equally motivated.
In retrospect, I realize that for many SWAT teams, Exercise #1 was easily the equivalent of taking the annual required PFT (Physical Fitness Test). Yet, this was only one of 25 equally challenging exercises continuously completed in 48+ hours. To be in this level of conditioning is to be in "Super SWAT Shape."
At no time did I witness anything less than 100 percent effort. And throughout the competition, at virtually every exercise I witnessed, the support and encouragement from all in attendance, especially ACSO personnel, was enthusiastic for each and every team. This level of genuine sportsmanship is a rarity today, but it's also contagious, and I soon found myself cheering on each competitor I saw throughout the competition.
Mere words aren't enough to describe the admiration and awe I have for each and every Urban Shield 2009 team and participant. Each is a credit not only to SWAT, but also to the entire LE profession - and more than earned my eternal respect for their dedication and true grit.
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