For two years the Alameda County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department has organized and hosted Urban Shield, the nation's largest SWAT exercise. The 48-hour competition involves 25 tactical teams working 24 realistic scenarios. This year's event was held Sept. 12-15, and POLICE editor David Griffith was on the scene.
7:30 a.m.: Breakfast Talk
"It's the best training you can get anywhere. Period," the SWAT team leader says as he sips his coffee. "There's just nothing like it."
I scratch down his comments after agreeing not to identify his team. Then I mull what he has just said. I write the following question in my notes: "What makes Urban Shield so great?"
The participants-eight officers per team-are gathered in a large classroom at the Alameda County Emergency Operations Center for orientation and medical and safety briefings.
Among other things, they learn that no live weapons or live ammo will be allowed in the scenario areas. They will use only weapons issued at the site that have been modified to fire Simunition FX marking cartridges. They are also warned about dehydration and other medical concerns.
The briefings complete, Commander Charles Nice of the Alameda County SD dismisses the teams: "Go get some rest," he says. "Once I give the command at 6 a.m., we are going for 48 hours."
Each team will start tomorrow morning at a different scenario and each is expected to complete all 24 scenarios, including a grueling 13-mile trail run, without more than a few catnaps of sleep.
The next two days are going to be hell for these teams, I think to myself.
Looking at the schedule, I take special note of which team has been randomly selected for the last 13-mile run. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Special Response Team will hit the trail in the wee hours of Monday morning after nearly 48 hours of constant work. Poor bastards.
10:45 a.m.: Caldecott Tunnel
Some five hours ago, all (simulated) hell broke loose in the Bay Area. Terrorists of all stripes have executed plans to attack nuclear facilities, sabotage oil refineries, kill dignitaries, and take hostages across three Bay Area counties. It's up to the 25 tactical teams participating in Urban Shield to stop them.
An FBI SWAT team from the San Francisco office is preparing to tackle Scenario #5, an attempted terror attack on the Caldecott Tunnel.
The Caldecott Tunnel connects Oakland with the outlying communities in Contra Costa County. It is a major concern for counter-terrorism planners in the Bay Area.
Scenario #5 is based on that concern. Teams are told that terrorists have entered the tunnel with explosives and automatic weapons. Their mission is to stop the terrorists from bringing the tunnel down onto the weekend traffic whizzing by below.
The San Francisco-based FBI team has probably gamed this scenario before. But that won't make it easy. The tunnel is a nasty place for SWAT operations. It's dark, traffic noise drowns out communications, and there are drops of up to 10 feet.
Safety officers check the FBI guys for live weapons; they are briefed on the situation. Then they gear up and go in.
1:45 p.m.: Oakland International Airport
Inside the stuffy confines of an old FedEx cargo jet, I am waiting for a battle. Outside, the Oakland Police Department SWAT team is preparing its assault.
In Scenario #18, Aircraft Interdiction, suspected terrorists have taken over the plane and taken the crew hostage. The team has to take the aircraft back and rescue the hostages using a variety of tools, including a massive Blackwater Grizzly MRAP armored vehicle.
The retired tactical officer portraying the lead "terrorist" gives everyone the cue: "The Grizzly's moving. Get ready."
He goes back out and cracks off a few blank rounds from a revolver, then he comes charging back onto the plane issuing orders to his fellow terrorists. "Back door. Back door," he barks and picks up a Sim modified MP5.
Oakland SWAT storms the plane, and an intense firefight begins. Casings clink off the metal. Sim rounds splat against the bulkhead and bags of gear.
Seconds later the battle is over.
As the Oakland team moves on to its next scenario, its leader Sgt. Mike Gonzales chats with the press. "We could all use more training like this," he says. "It was extremely stressful, extremely reality-based."
3:25 p.m.: Glenn Dyer Jail
Situated in downtown Oakland, Glenn Dyer jail consists of two buildings; one stands six stories, the other four. For Scenario #14, officers were required to run a half mile with gear to the building then up 18 flights of stairs to the roof.
And that's where the fun really began. The teams had to get from the roof of the six-story building to the roof of the four-story building across the courtyard via a 170-foot-long zip line.
Once they reached the roof of the other building and disengaged from the zip line, officers were paired off, given BeamHit-equipped pistols, and told to engage targets on the roof.
I follow behind Officer Ken Nelson and Officer Jason Grimm of the California Highway Patrol SWAT team as they work the BeamHit drill. They move quickly and smoothly to clear each room, slicing the pie and going high-low to take out the targets.
"It was awesome, just like a video game for adults," Nelson says afterward. "It was a good training scenario," adds Grimm.
And it hasn't ended. Nelson and Grimm will wait for the rest of the team to join them on the roof and complete the BeamHit exercise. Then each man will rappel down to the street.