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In the wake of 9-11, special ops teams that train together survive together

March 01, 2002  |  by Frank Borelli

It's 6:30 on a Tuesday morning and the Calvert County Special Operations Team (SOT) is gathering in the lower level parking lot at its offices in Prince Frederick, Md. About 20 air miles away, the Search & Rescue helicopter crew at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station (PAX-SAR) is reporting for duty. And nearly 100 miles to the north, members of the Maryland State Police Special Tactical Assault Team Element (STATE) are also gearing up for a training day.

This particular Tuesday morning will see all three teams working together to plan and prepare for response to a terrorist incident at a nuclear power plant. This isn't really anything new for them. They've all done this before; usually once each year. What's different today is that the terrorist attacks of 9-11 are three months behind them and practicing to respond to such an attack has taken on a whole new meaning.

By 8:30, the SOT and PAX-SAR teams are sitting in a classified briefing at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant. By 8:45, everyone is being briefed on helicopter safety and emergency procedures. At 9, the first team is onboard and in the air.

The helicopter circuit includes flying over the three primary pickup points for the Calvert County SOT followed by an aerial tour of the power plant, an examination of the alternate landing zone on the water side of the plant, and then landing. Upon landing, the team practices emergency egress from the helicopter under cover of M-60 machinegun fire provided by a member of the PAX-SAR crew.

In the past, this kind of training was "the fun stuff." Most police officers, whether assigned to special operations or not, would jump at the opportunity to go for a helicopter ride and tour half their jurisdiction from the air.

Not today. Sgt. Thomas, in command of the Calvert SOT, has a very serious and focused demeanor, realizing that this will be one of a few limited opportunities to perform aerial reconnaissance on a potential terrorist target. Perhaps more importantly, exercises that combine the operations of all three groups are rare and should be taken full advantage of. When a terrorist attack really happens, these men need to know how to work together, or people will get killed. This is not a game.

Even as early as 6:30, as the Calvert SOT guys gathered in their lot and joked with each other in a way that demonstrated their strong team camaraderie, they were thinking about the assignment. As they suited up at the power plant everyone was "getting their operations face on."

First Sgt. Runk, commander of the STATE team, and Sgt. Thomas huddle together talking strategy and shared responsibilities. Sgt. Thomas says, "Yeah; my guys can handle that, but we'll depend on your guys to handle this." The work is divided, responsibilities accepted, and two teams who have worked together before grow even closer and build their working relationship.

On a daily basis such cooperative arrangements are beneficial. In the post 9-11 world such work relationships are critical.

If the Calvert County SOT is called out for a hostage or barricade incident, the neighboring St. Mary's County Special Operations officers are also called. These two counties share the work and support each other freely.

And with good reason. With only 12 Special Operations officers on each sheriff's agency, they need both teams to adequately man a response to a hostage/barricade call. Both SOT groups have worked with the STATE team before and calling on assets from the military is not new to any of them. The only difference this morning is that a representative from the Army is on hand to observe and investigate the possibility of further training integration, involving the Army and civilian law enforcement units.

Cutting the Confusion

Joint training exercises, such as the one cited above, should be mandatory and should occur as frequently as possible in jurisdictions with high-risk targets. Further, they should include every unit that will play a role in the response to any attack on that target. Not doing so could mean miscommunication or counterproductive strategies between teams, which could lead to unnecessary officer casualities in the event of a real terrorist attack.

In this case, to eliminate such confusion, the one SOT group not on hand-the team from St. Mary's county-would most likely be tasked with other duties if there were an attack on the power plant. The participation of all teams in this exercise will ensure several things:

Those units most likely to be called in the event of a terrorist attack have all met each other. Even though they've worked together in the past, this allows for introduction of new team members and reinforces each team's awareness of the capabilities they share or that they carry primary responsibility for.

Team members conduct aerial surveillance of the power plant before commencing a training exercise to defend the area.

It puts all of the units together in the same room for the briefing that gives them necessary risk information about the target they are protecting, or responding to, and delineates what the power plant's security personnel expect from the responding units.

It presents the opportunity for potential planning flaws to be corrected. The Calvert SOT might see a challenge and assume that PAX-SAR can handle the perceived solution. However, if this solution is not played out in training, they might not realize until they are on scene in a true crisis situation that the solution is unworkable. If this occurred, the teams would  have to improvise a different resolution.

CONTINUED: Teamwork «   Page 1 of 2   »

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