12:30 p.m.: San Lorenzo High School
Welcome to my nightmare.
I am standing on the floor of the girl's gym at San Lorenzo High School in the city of the same name. The lights are dimmed, the gym is full of simulated smoke, and four terrorists are holding 15 students at gunpoint. "Bombs" are rigged into the basketball hoops.
This is Scenario #19. And it's really creepy, especially for anyone who has studied the 2004 school massacre in Beslan, Russia.
Outside, the SWAT team from the San Francisco FBI office is working with a member of the Alameda County SD's bomb squad to make a dynamic entry. The team members know they have to enter fast and knock the terrorists off balance. So they are going to explosively breach into the school.
There's a loud crack.
And the FBI is in the building. Gunshots and screams. Hostages are ordered to get down. Then quicker than I could have imagined, the team has eliminated the "terrorists," including one hiding in the locker room adjacent to the gym floor.
The team now issues orders to the hostages. Each hostage is instructed to stand up, hands on his or her head. "Move quickly! Move quickly!" one of the FBI agents barks, as each hostage is escorted to safety and checked to make sure that he or she isn't a wolf in student clothing.
The FBI team and the hostages exit out the door they came in. I walk out with the "terrorists."
The shooter in the girl's locker room was Tim Bales, a school resource officer who works at San Lorenzo High. Bales praises the performance of the FBI team. "They were really good and really fast," he says. "They picked me up very quickly, identified me as a threat, and lit me up."
3:15 p.m.: Alameda County SWAT Van
Team leader Sgt. Ken Gemmell has graciously surrendered the front passenger seat to me. His only request is that I don't step on the team's supply of Pop-Tarts.
The team's large panel van is crammed with equipment and men. Its front passenger side floor is covered with boxes of snack foods and MREs.
"We're sponsored by Pop-Tarts," jokes one team member.
Earlier this afternoon, the team finished the 13-mile run, setting the course record, averaging about 4.5 miles per hour. And they've been up and working for basically 33 straight hours. They should be exhausted, but they are in very good spirits.
"We all feel good," says Gemmell. He and some of the men admit that they have caught a few catnaps while waiting for scenarios to begin. "Sometimes you get 15 to 30 minutes," Gemmell explains.
More than sleep, their biggest concern has been food. "I tried one of the new MREs," one officer says. "I didn't finish it."
I ask about injuries. "We've had some blisters," Gemmell says. Two of his teammates pipe up with other answers. "Hurt feelings," says one. "Broken hearts," adds the other.
We arrive at Exercise #6 in downtown Berkeley, a hostage rescue inside a vacant public health building just off the University of California campus that has been dubbed "Schwarzenegger Hall."
4:30 p.m.: Schwarzenegger Hall
I am escorted to a classroom on the first floor to join other "hostages." There we receive instructions from Rob Westerhoff of the Berkeley Police Department. He tells us not to stand up once the shooting starts. Sound advice.
On the fourth floor of the building, the scenario has begun. Sgt. Gemmell and the men of Alameda County SWAT are confronting a group of animal rights terrorists. At some point, one of the terrorists will disengage and run down here to hold us hostage. It could take a while. There are multiple active shooters in the scenario.
Westerhoff tells us that this team is moving really fast. "They're coming," a role player says ducking into the classroom. That's a cue for us to put in our ear plugs, don our Simunition masks, and sit still.
Behind me one of the role players snaps off a few deafening blanks from a revolver. Then the team enters and takes out the shooter.
The scenario is over and Westerhoff gathers the hostages in the lobby. He thanks them for their service today. Acknowledging that these civilians have given up their Sunday, he tells them, "Your help with this training could mean the difference between life and death for somebody in a real school shooting."
5:15 p.m.: Losing Is Not an Option
Out in the parking lot of Schwarzenegger Hall, the men of Alameda County SWAT wait to move on to their next scenario as the Los Angeles County Special Enforcement Bureau team arrives. In the spirit of good-natured competition, officers from the two teams chat about the exercises and their performance.
No one knows it at this point, but LASD SEB will be the eventual winners of Urban Shield. Regardless, this has been a unrelentingly brutal day for team leader Sgt. Thomas Giandomenico.
Earlier this afternoon, Giandomenico smacked his head into the landing gear strut of the FedEx plane in the airport scenario. His wound required nine staples to close it. Medical personnel asked him to leave the competition.
But he soldiered on, even though the next event that his team faced was the 13-mile trail run. On that run Giandomenico and his teammates chose to wear their boots instead of trail shoes. Giandomenico lost three toenails on the run.
The next night at the "Final Exercise, the awards banquet," Giandomenico explains how he split his head open during the aircraft scenario. "I was disabling the landing gear. I've done that operation many times. Except when I do it back home, I wear my helmet. So I don't worry about bumping my head. This time I didn't have my helmet on because I can't wear it and the Simunition mask."
I follow up with the obvious question: Why didn't you drop out when the medical staff suggested that you call it a day?
Giandomenico looks me square in the eyes and says with reservation, "Losing wasn't an option."
Giandomenico's words could serve as the motto for every team that endured the grueling 48 hours of Urban Shield 2008. They all learned new tactics, new skills, and gained more confidence in their ability to handle the most difficult critical incidents. Winning was their only option, and none of them are losers.
Leaving the closing banquet, I flip back to page one of my notes. And there is my question from breakfast on orientation day: What makes Urban Shield so great?
I now have the answer.
Over the weekend, I have seen dozens of SWAT officers run through complicated scenarios and gain hands-on time with new police technologies and products such as the TASER Shockwave Area Denial System and Recon Robotics robots. They have worked in low-light conditions and in bright sunlight. They have fired thousands of rounds of marking cartridges in force-on-force combat with other experienced officers. They have fought battles in train cars, on sweltering aircraft, in cramped industrial sites, in crowded school buildings, and on moving boats. They have improved their teamwork, bolstered their confidence, and learned to stay in the fight-regardless of fatigue, pain, or injury-until the hostages are rescued and the "tangos" are down.
Is Urban Shield the best tactical training exercise in America? Absolutely.
A special thanks to Sheriff Greg Ahern, Lt. Gary Berge, Sgt. J.D. Nelson, Sgt. Ray Kelly, and the men and women of the Alameda County Sheriff's Department for their hospitality during Urban Shield 2008 (www.urbanshield.org).
To view the photo gallery from the 2007 event, click here.